The third church on this site. The first was founded in 1101 as the chapel of a leper hospital; it did not become a parish church until 1542. Over time the area became wealthy and posh, and a second more elaborate church was built in 1631. The St Giles of today dates from 1733 and was funded by the Commissioners for the Fifty New Churches. The design is by Henry Flitcroft, champion of the Palladian style (named after Venetian architect Andrea Palladio). The church escaped major damage during the Blitz, and underwent a major restoration in the early 1950s. It is a handsome building, accessed via a lych gate beside the tower. The interior features plenty of gilding, but in a slightly reserved English way there is, as far as I could see, just one cherub in the decor, a pious little fellow directly over the altar. There are large windows of plain glazing that let the sun stream in.
It would be interesting to know who the community around St Giles are today. The church is now mostly surrounded by offices, retail and entertainment, so there are not many inhabitants. Nevertheless, St Giles was organising a Little Big Camp, with urban camping in the churchyard for local families, busy preparations for which were in hand (would the rector test the bouncy castle? I wondered). They have Bible study on Tuesday afternoons and a support group that meets on Mondays at noon as well as in the evening. They conduct a bellringing class. They also support a cafe for the homeless where patrons can (quoting from their website) "meet and socialise with their friends ... without worrying about being moved on." There is morning prayer during the week, a said eucharist on Wednesdays, and sung eucharist (with professional quartet) and evensong (with volunteer choir) each Sunday.
The St Giles district of London has undergone many changes over the years, culminating in the present day, where the church's baroque tower holds its own against the many modern buildings nearby. Tin Pan Alley and its guitar shops are 20 yards away. The 1960s tower block Centre Point rises just 50 yards away. The bars and advertising agencies of Soho and shops of Oxford Street are all close at hand. So St Giles Church is a little oasis of calm on a Sunday morning.
The Revd Alan Carr, rector.
What was the name of the service?Sung Eucharist for St Peter's Day.
How full was the building?
As we sang the first hymn there were twelve. The number increased to about twenty plus an organist and the professional quartet and their director. So, not full enough. Those attending the service were of all ages and there were one or two young families the four children present were as good as gold.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
As I entered, a young man was in the middle of the passage tolling the bell to summon the faithful. Without missing a stroke he smiled, bade me good morning, and with a slight inclination of the head indicated I should go to his left. At the back of the church the welcomer greeted me again and gave me everything I needed, plus a copy of the parish newsletter. A welcome well done.
Was your pew comfortable?
Moderately. There was a piece of trim along the top that caught me in the back unless I slouched right down, in an impious way.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning and welcome."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
We had the New English Hymnal, a shiny new copy too. A handsome bookplate indicated the two parishioners who had donated them. A service sheet laid out beautifully the order of service.
What musical instruments were played?
The organ in the west gallery, an 18th century instrument that even boasts some pipes from its 17th century predecessor in the old church. It was all beautifully restored by the late William Drake, doyen of English organ restorers, in 2006, and sounded rather special.
Did anything distract you?
At one point electric guitar music was distantly heard presumably from Tin Pan Alley nearby. But it soon faded.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
This was a straight-up English communion from the 1662 Prayer Book, except that the Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei were sung by the quartet to a setting by Palestrina. The hymns were good 'uns too: for the offertory we had "Give me the wings of faith to rise" to its alternative tune, San Rocco, which is sadly often passed over.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 — It was clear and lucid and personal. A first person narrative about the preacher's ordination seemed justified by the readings for the day and the fact that we were in the season of ordinations.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Petertide, the season of ordinations. The rector recalled his own ordination in Chichester Cathedral almost exactly 30 years ago. Time had sped past since, and he admitted he had not fully understood the implications of a confessional vocation of Shepherd and sheep. But he challenged the congregation to consider that Simon Bar-Jonah, whom Christ anointed as Peter, the rock and foundation of the Church, was not ordained in the way we mean it today. So the confessions of faith are not those of the priesthood alone.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The professional quartet led hymns and sang the Palestrina mass settings and an anthem by the Flemish Renaissance composer Jacob Vaet. Beautiful music beautifully sung, with devotion rather than show.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
There is a new office development opposite designed by Renzo Piano, an Italian architect of note. The colours of its facades tower over the church screaming slabs of bright orange, red, yellow and blue and are very visible inside. I wish I had chosen a seat where they did not impinge.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I listened to the organ recessional, then noticed a pulpit that had been used by John Wesley, rescued from the nearby former West Street chapel. The pop of a cork announced the fact that in celebration of the rector's 30th anniversary of ordination we were being offered Prosecco, which I gratefully accepted. I suspect coffee was on hold that day. I chatted to several who were at the service and there was a friendly welcoming atmosphere. It seemed like a gathered congregation, with some travelling a long way to attend.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
It was Prosecco - see above.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 — Evensong aside, I am not used to the Prayer Book and its order of proceeding: the Gloria after communion and the creed before the sermon, for example. But it is powerful and accessible language and I was fully engaged. Seeing it in effective use made me a convert to the need to ensure it continues in use. That, and the wonderful music, would draw me back to this church.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Very much so.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The Palestrina setting.