The church sits slightly west of, rather than right on, St Andrews Square, because a wealthy Scot had snapped up the land intended for it before construction began. This building was opened in 1784 as an integral part of the New Town development of Edinburgh. It has an unusual elliptical shape, while maintaining neo-classical design and features. It starts with a portico graced by Roman columns, above which rises a graceful steeple. But rather than corners as one might expect, as the building progresses eastward it curves away. The interior is bright, open and spacious, with rows of blue padded chairs repeating the ellipse shape. The pews have been replaced with modern chairs in the centre of the nave, but there are a few rows of pale wood box pews left at the back on the ground floor, and more above in the gallery. There are stained glass windows at the east and west ends, and double rows of clear windows on the sides, so the space is very bright. The tower contains the oldest complete ring of bells in Scotland, cast in 1788 when the church was new and refurbished in 2006.
This is an amalgamation of two church communities: St Andrew's with St George's West. The congregations merged in 2010 and operated both buildings until earlier this year, when St George's was sold. This is a very active community church in the centre of town, home to the massive Christian Aid Week book sale each summer as well as the charitys winter art sale. Its a registered eco-congregation and hosts a monthly meeting of Amnesty. There is an ongoing autumn lecture series and there are also various childrens activities, including Scouts and Guides.
This part of Edinburgh, known as the New Town, was developed in the late 18th century in response to overcrowding in the Old Town. Together they now form a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The graceful Georgian architecture and integrated squares have been well preserved, and properties here are priced to match their desirability. The Dome, a fancy restaurant and wedding venue across the street from the church, was all decked out for Christmas already.
The Revd Ian Y. Gilmour, minister, presided and preached. Ali Pandian gave the children's talk, and Swarup Bar delivered the intercessions. Winnie Cumming read both the readings. The organists were Andrew Carvel and James McNeil, and the music was directed by Chris Harding. The minister was wearing a blue cassock St Andrew's blue, I would call it the same colour as the Scottish flag. Ali Pandian was in street clothes.
What was the name of the service?Morning Worship
How full was the building?
Quite full on the ground floor. There were about 100 people. The upper galleries were empty except for the organists and choir, and could have seated another hundred, but there were not many empty spaces in the padded-chair section in the nave. There was a sprinkling of generally elderly faithful in the box pews at the back one got the impression they had their own habitual seats.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
There was a formal welcome at the door: two different people handing out different leaflets, and a less formal welcome from the people seated around us in church.
Was your pew comfortable?
The padded chairs were perfectly fine, and there was plenty of standing for five hymns.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
We arrived as the choir was filing through to go up to their gallery whether they had been rehearsing or not I dont know. The church was already quite full a much more punctual congregation than I am used to and the people were quietly chatting.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Welcome!" Following the first hymn and the Lord's Prayer, the minister welcomed everyone again and gave the notices, including the invitation to stay for a fellowship lunch after the service. At this point we all shared the peace, followed by the children's talk.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The order of service handed out at the door, and the Church Hymnary, 4th Edition.
What musical instruments were played?
Organ, an opus of Wells Kennedy Partnership Ltd of Lisburn, Northern Ireland.
Did anything distract you?
I was glancing around, admiring the stunning ceiling and the shape of the space, but there was no particular person or incident that took my attention away from worship.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was structured but relaxed, with plenty of laughter and excellent singing by choir and congregation. The service was launched by Ali Pandian, who welcomed us all to church on this sunny and chilly autumn morning. She then led the call to worship and introduced us to the theme of "trees" that would prevail. She talked about the change of seasons and how easy it is to forget the value of trees, the air they renew, and their spectacular colours at this time of year. The service itself was basically a hymn sandwich, including a childrens talk and a sermon. The minister made a point of thanking the reader and the organists by name, and the choir as a group. There was a general air of faith, peace and courtesy.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – Mr Gilmour was very engaging. His talk wasnt deep, but it was thoughtful and relevant. He had a lovely voice and spoke very well. He told his stories in a very entertaining manner, although I suspect he had detailed notes as he never got lost or dithered.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The theme of the service was the communion of saints, as we were celebrating All Saints Day. The point in a nutshell was that we are all part of the communion of saints, and the preacher illustrated this by describing some people he had known in his life and ministry. One was a lady in a previous congregation who evidently had direct communications from God. She would bring messages to the minister about someone in need in the parish sometimes this would be people unknown either to her or the minister. The next example was a childhood neighbour who had been a bit of a dragon to the local boys when their ball strayed into her garden. Every Halloween, this ancient bastion of the Free Church would invite all the local youngsters in and then reward them all with cakes and other good things. Lastly, he talked about how Zacchaeus the tax collector (Luke 19:1-10), following his encounter with Jesus, suddenly shared his wealth and was led to a new understanding of himself.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The building was lovely and the choir were excellent. The anthem and the sung Amen, coming from the choir in the gallery beneath that magnificent ceiling, were indeed heavenly.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
There was nothing hellish. Usually I can have a bit of a rant, but this time I can only say I was a bit disappointed that the main Sunday service did not include holy communion.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
There was no chance of being abandoned in such a friendly church. The minister had invited the congregation to stay for lunch and people reiterated the invitation as we made our way out.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
It would have been a real meal sadly we had to decline due to a prior commitment. The minister described it as "ostensibly free, but we are accepting donations for the work of Amnesty." I gathered that this is what they do on the first Sunday of the month, for the benefit of different charities. It would have been nice to stay.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 – It was lovely, but I prefer a church where the main service is the eucharist. However, I suspect that if I actually lived in Edinburgh I would gravitate here from time to time, even though I am not Presbyterian.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, it did, and glad to be considered part of the communion of saints, even if I don't see myself in that light!
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
Celestial is the word I want to use the heavenly voices and the magnificent ceiling on that round room.