St James, Piccadilly, London


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St James
Location: Piccadilly, London
Date of visit: Tuesday, 15 October 2019, 1:05pm

The building

Wren church in central London, bombed in WW2 and rebuilt, preserving magnificent carving in wood and stone by Grinling Gibbons, the 18th century woodcarver and sculptor whose works can be seen in numerous English churches as well as in Kensington Palace and Windsor Castle. The forecourt is full of life, with a food market and a caravan where free counselling is offered. Inside, there is a card sale in the vestibule. The north aisle is given over to the homeless ('our guests') and the south aisle to services. In the middle, tourists can get up close to the amazing limewood carving.

The church

They manage to balance hospitality to the homeless with intellectual honesty and good music. The community seems to be anyone who is in central London.

The neighborhood

Everything: shops, theatres, parks, clubs – the whole life of Westminster – goes on all round. The building is approached equally from Piccadilly and Jermyn Street and is regularly flooded with tourists, office workers and passers-by. When I was there, the food market was very lively, with a huge array of dishes from all over the world.

The cast

Said service was led by a priest, with server. The priest gave a short address. Orthodox, but not Prayer Book, wording.

What was the name of the service?

Eucharist in Ordinary Time.

How full was the building?

Twelve of us.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

No. We just happened to be there.

Was your pew comfortable?


How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

The homeless slept on the pews of the other aisle. Sometimes their snores filled the church. Although they were not particularly noisy on this occasion, I was delightfully aware that this is their space.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

‘Grace and peace to you from God.’

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Service sheet.

What musical instruments were played?


Did anything distract you?

The presence of the homeless is always the best bit. The Grinling Gibbons is pretty amazing too.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

Conventional in general outline, including the peace (quite heartfelt). On the altar there was a ring being blessed for some private ceremony.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

3 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

9 — The preacher was thoughtful and sincere, including himself among the Pharisees.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Pharisees were the only group of people Christ whole-heartedly condemned. There is a Pharisee in all of us. We need to listen to our inner self and act from generosity and love. All God asks is honesty.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The presence of the homeless; the honesty of the preacher; the beauty of the carved fruit, flowers, shells, birds...

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

I think I was the only dropper-in. There was a slight feeling of doing something arcane and slightly ridiculous.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

I examined the carving in detail. You don't often get a chance like that.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?


How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

10 — This was not a representative service. I wish I were in Piccadilly more often. Next time I'll have a sleep in the north aisle.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

Very pleased that all this goes on.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

The homeless asleep on the pews.

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