St James the Great, Sydney, AU

St James, Sydney, Australia


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St James
Location: Sydney, Australia
Date of visit: Sunday, 27 July 2014, 10:00am

The building

The oldest church building in Sydney, St James has been in continuous use since its consecration in 1824. It was designed by the English architect Francis Greenway (who had been sentenced to transportation for forgery) and built entirely by fellow convicts. The large rectangular Georgian building is of unpainted brick on the outside. Inside, it is notable for several marble memorial stones. The chancel features a gold semi-dome above a semi-circular sanctuary. A ring of eight bells was installed in 2003 and were pealing today.

The church

One of the Catholic Anglican islands in the middle of the conservative evangelical Sydney diocese, St James draws worshippers from across the metropolitan area of Sydney and beyond, some travelling regularly up to 80km (50 miles). There is a strong tradition of social welfare, social justice and community engagement. It is home to the nationally recognised St James Ethics Centre, and also offers a professional "non-faith-based" counselling service.

The neighborhood

Set between the principal legal precinct and Hyde Park, this is an area where barristers, solicitors and judges mingle with homeless people and city workers. The coffee shop is frequented by people across all these communities (some indeed may belong to all three!).

The cast

The Rt Revd Dr Jonathan Holland, Bishop of Brisbane – Northern Region, preached. The Revd Andrew Sempell, rector, was the celebrant, The Revd John Stewart, associate rector, acted as deacon, and David McQuoid was subdeacon. The organ was played by Alistair Nelson. Warren Trevelyan-Jones, head of music, led the choir of St James and the St James Singers.

What was the name of the service?

Solemn Choral Eucharist with Procession

How full was the building?

Three-quarters full (approximately 350 people). For the patronal festival the service replaced the usual 9.00am sung eucharist and the 11.00am choral eucharist.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

One of the sidespersons said, "Good morning and welcome" as she handed me a printed order of service. I asked if anyone would come and glare at me if I sat in the wrong pew. She laughed and said, "No, we're pretty relaxed about that here."

Was your pew comfortable?

As far a church pews go it was not uncomfortable. Plenty of leg room and easy to kneel. Without the Anglican tradition of sit, stand, kneel, it might have become a numbing experience, though.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Quiet and reverential. Low murmurs from people greeting one another. Some people coming in exchanged polite waves with others in various parts of the church.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"O lux et decus Hispaniae" (O light and grace of Spain). St James is the patron saint of Spain. The introit was sung by the choir. Then: "Welcome, everyone, to St James Church as we celebrate our patronal festival."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The printed order of service contained all the readings and hymns, the music for congregational chants, liturgical texts, Latin/English words for the Mozart Coronation Mass, and the names of all the participants in the service.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ, a rather fine instrument, regularly used for recitals. It is an opus of John Gray of London and dates from 1827. It was modernised and enlarged in the 1870s and was repositioned in several places about the church before finding its present home in the chancel. Major refurbishment and reconstruction were undertaken in 1970-1971 by Hill, Norman & Beard (Aust) Pty Ltd.

Did anything distract you?

The marble memorials, which rather crowd the walls between the large stained glass windows, extolling the virtues of the departed, caught my eye. It was, after all, the colonial church of the city. They include a Latin tribute to a person slain by bush rangers, rendered as "latrone vagante" (wandering robber).

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

It was formal Anglican of the Catholic variety. Strong singing of hymns and chants by the congregation and firm responses where appropriate.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

21 minutes.

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

7 – The bishop is a very tall man. He made many, but not inappropriate, hand gestures, with some gentle humour and an easy familiarity with a congregation in which he is well-known.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Uncovering the life of St James and drawing a relevance to modern Christian life. The two stories of James in the gospels are not flattering: Luke 9:54, where James asks Jesus if he should call down fire upon the Samaritans; and Mark 10:37, where James asks to sit next to Jesus in heaven. Did Jesus recognise a passion in his great friend that he was able to channel into positive service? Oscar Wilde once wrote that every saint has a past and every sinner a future. James, the first apostle to die, following the example of Jesus, becomes the servant leader of the Christian community. He ultimately laid down his life for his Lord. True faith, then, is to be found in service, being available to people's needs.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

Good liturgy, good singing, good music, total reverence (and incense, which is the odour of heaven).

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

The sermon might have been generally good, but 21 minutes is rather long for an Anglican. It was not quite in the Wesley order!

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

I didn't have the opportunity to hang around. It was a two hour service (OK, that is an exceptional time!) and I had to catch a train. It is obviously a friendly place that welcomes all manner of people.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

It looked like good coffee (rather than the "universal church fluid") and I would have welcomed a hit, but I had to leave!

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

10 – I live in a different city, over two hours away by train, so regularity here is not possible. However, Catholic Anglican without the birettas and with a good choir and decent incense is my idea of heaven!

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


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

The music, the liturgy, and the good singing by the congregation.

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