Mystery Worshipper: Cool Dude
Church: Old St Paul's, Jeffrey Street, Edinburgh, Scotland.
Date of visit: Sunday, 24 September 2017, 10:30am
An aisle-less church of 1883 designed by William Hay and George Henderson. Both were pupils of Sir George Gilbert Scott, who designed the splendid Episcopal cathedral in Edinburgh. Squashed into a very tight space surrounded by bars, restaurant and a Hilton hotel, it is not a large church, but has rich fittings, including a delicate iron rood screen and impressive gilded reredos in the late medieval style. To one side, a chapel was somehow built into some space in 1920 as a World War I memorial. Alongside the names of the fallen, it contains the monumental and mysterious painting Still by the Scottish painter Alison Watt, who at a young age won numerous awards, including a commission to paint a portrait of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. Still was commissioned in 2004 and is a most memorable piece of contemporary church art.
It was named Old St Paul's in 1884 to avoid confusion with another nearby church of the same name. The history of Old St Paul's is in many ways the history of the Scottish Episcopal Church itself. The present building stands on the site of the original home of Scottish Episcopalianism in Edinburgh, where in 1689 a breakaway group led by Bishop Alexander Rose found a new place of worship in an old wool store. Samuel Seabury, the first bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States, worshipped here and was consecrated a bishop at Aberdeen; Old St Paul's Lady chapel is dedicated to his memory. The church combines a strong liturgical and musical tradition with progressive views a refreshing and appealing mixture. There is a woman curate, and the church is registering for Equal Marriage (Scottish Anglican churches can opt in to this, but not yet English ones). There appear from the notices to be plentiful parish groups and social events.
Old St Paul's is hidden in plain sight. Visible in several of the usual postcard views of the city, the church is remarkably tucked away when you try to find it. There is an inconspicuous entrance on Jeffrey Street that involves a long and daunting internal flights of steps, as the church is built into one of Edinburgh's steep hills. And another route in lies off the main tourist drag, "The Royal Mile," via a historic but obscure alleyway called Carrubbers Court. This is signposted, but the church noticeboard is poorly sited, and is difficult to see because of a battery of refuse bins in front of it. So, in spite of huge footfall nearby, few people see the way in or indeed know there is a church there at all. Carrubbers Court was, on the Sunday morning, distinctly uriniferous, though somebody had thrown a bucket of water down near the actual church door. As I approached the door, the din of kitchen extract fans from hotels and restaurants all around was really loud. So, when you finally get into Old St Paul's, the spacious and beautiful church in this landlocked site is both a relief and a pleasant surprise.
The Revd Canon Ian Paton, rector, led the service. The Revd Jenny Wright, curate, preached. There was a large altar party; also a choir.
What was the name of the service?High Mass
How full was the building?
About 120 people if you include the large sanctuary party. Though there are residential areas nearby, the congregation appeared to be a gathered one.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
A friendly lady greeted me and handed me a hymnbook and two service sheets.
Was your pew comfortable?
An old-fashioned church chair. Mine was slightly rickety.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Surprisingly chatty for a church this high in liturgy.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
In the name of the Father ...
What books did the congregation use during the service?
A mass booklet, a weekly sheet for today's service, and Hymns Ancient and Modern.
What musical instruments were played?
Organ, a small "Father" Henry Willis instrument dating from 1888. It was modified in 1936 and again in 1960 and 1968. It was rebuilt and revoiced beginning in 1970 by Nicholson & Co. Ltd Organ Builders of Malvern, Worcestershire, leaving the original Willis pipework intact.
Did anything distract you?
Two visitors appeared at the large glass doors by the chancel steps some time mid mass. These doors are, oddly, where you arrive if you slog up the internal stone steps from Jeffrey Street, rather than totter down Carrubbers Court to the west door. They made as if to come in, then hesitated, then stood looking at us for a minute, then left. Nobody welcomed them or made a welcoming sign which seems a pity given the fine music and liturgy, which they might well have enjoyed.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Full-on Anglo-Catholic liturgy, not fussy but solemn. There was a Palestrina mass sung by the choir, but in the Gloria we reverted to a folk mass sung by the congregation. After the liturgy of the word came parish notices and we bade farewell to Jonathan Livingstone, a server for many years, who was to be ordained the following week. The rector undertook a five minute question and answer session with Jonathan. This was a nice touch, emphasising St Paul's as a future facing congregation as well as one that nurtures vocations. It emerged that Jonathan knew almost nothing about the parish where he was to start as curate the week after ordination. Straight into the front line! We wished him God's Speed.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
6 – It failed to grab me, I'm afraid.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
A slightly rambling disquisition on the texts of the day.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
At a middle verse in the gradual hymn, the organ brought us in and then stopped, so that the congregation sang completely unaccompanied. It was a touching moment, as we held the time and words together rather well we were listening to each other.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
What happened when I hung around looking lost after the mass.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
To give Jonathan Livingstone a sendoff, we were invited for a glass of Prosecco at the back of the church in place of the usual post-service refreshments. Preparations for this were slow, and so I hung around looking lost. I lit a candle before a statue of Our Lady, then hung around some more looking really badly lost for at least five minutes. Sadly not one person spoke to me or recognised me as a visitor midst the lively chatter, so I decided to head out just as the Prosecco finally arrived.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none that week see above.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – If I lived in Edinburgh I think it might well become my regular.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
It certainly did though I did feel sadly ignored at the end of my visit.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The monumental painting Still in the side chapel. I went back the next day specially to see it again.