A neo-classical building on the edge of Trafalgar Square in the centre of London. The current church was built in the 1720s and has a rectangular nave divided into arcades by sizeable columns that lift into carvings up to the roof. There is a gallery that I have seen used but wasn't on this occasion. The windows are plain glass, with a modern design for the east window. The lighting is from brass candelabra. Seating is in box pews.
St Martin-in-the-Fields is well known for its work with the homeless, in which it is supported by the BBC, with which the church has a good relationship. It also provides services for the Chinese community and is the church for the Royal Family, 10 Downing Street, and the Pearly Kings and Queens (an organisation, steeped in tradition, of charitable groups), whose Harvest Festival is held there in October. St Martin-in-the-Fields holds concerts throughout the year and has a deserved reputation for amazing music.
When the church was built, it was literally in the fields between the City of London and Westminster. Today, St Martin-in-the-Fields is in the centre of London, next to Trafalgar Square and near to galleries and the theatre.
The Rt Revd Graham James, Bishop of Norwich, was the preacher. The Revd Dr Sam Wells, vicar, was the celebrant. Readers were the Revd Roger Hutchings and the Revd Sharon Grenham-Toze. Prayers were led by Sister Gemma Simmonds, of the Congregation of Jesus. Music Director was Richard Tanner; organist was Andrew Earls.
What was the name of the service?A Celebration for Ascension Day
How full was the building?
Downstairs was full. I don't think the gallery was in use.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
It was a ticketed service because it was also broadcast, so we were greeted via the BBC routine of checking tickets, adding stickers, and scanning the barcodes. There was someone from St Martin-in-the-Fields also handing out tickets at the door to regular members of the congregation.
Was your pew comfortable?
Box seating isn't wonderfully comfortable, but I didn't find the height of the edges actively painful. It neither caught me in the neck or required me to crane my head to see over it, as I have experienced in other churches.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Expectant hum. We had to be seated by 7.40pm, but we were in 20 minutes before that and had settled down. For the half hour from 7.25pm to 7.55pm, Clair Jaquiss, the producer, greeted us and explained the format of the service. We rehearsed some responses with the vicar, and the first verse of the hymns with the music director. Where there was a split between voices, we also practised that. Part of this rehearsal time meant we were crossing out hymns on the booklet, as the rehearsal had shown they were running longer than an hour. We were also warned that should we be overrunning, someone would come into the central aisle and hold up a card with instructions for omitting verses of the hymns. One of the things Clair Jaquiss said that really stuck with me was that the congregation were not just those of us in church, but included the thousands of people listening in. It really did feel like being part of the wider communion.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
From about 7.55pm we were sitting in silence, waiting for the signal to say the BBC news broadcast had finished and that we were to start. When we started, we did so by singing "Hail the day that sees him rise." The vicar then said: "Alleluia! Christ is risen," to which all responded: "He is risen indeed. Alleluia!"
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Preprinted booklet with the hymns, readings, responses and prayers written in. Not sure of the Bible version, but suspect the New Revised Standard Version.
What musical instruments were played?
Organ. Music was also provided by members of the instrumental group Canzona (strings, woodwinds, brass, timpani, and what looked like a harpsichord); the BBC Radio 4 Daily Singers Choir; and Choral Scholars of St Martin-in-the-Fields.
Did anything distract you?
The whole service was taken apace to fit within the 8.02pm to 9.00pm slot, which didn't leave much time for distraction. The choir and orchestra provided settings from Bach's Mass in B Minor: several movements from the Gloria; the Sanctus, and the Dona nobis pacem movement from the Agnus Dei.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was a formal eucharistic service with Bach settings, hymns, and Common Worship format. It didn't feel stiff-upper-lip, as there were no processions or incense. The feeling was warm. When the peace was exchanged, we stayed in our pews but shook hands around: both sides, front and back. Because of the time constraints, only the clergy took communion, although the congregation were provided for later, as will be seen.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – The bishop spoke well, taking his subject from the texts and theme of the service and making them into something the congregation might experience in their own lives.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The ascended Christ is often depicted as a triumphant figure sitting at the right hand of God. When the noted early 19th century Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen crafted the clay model of what would become one of his most famous works, the Christus, the ascended Christ, he modeled it as a triumphant figure. However, when he left it in the workshop overnight, it sagged, leaving him with a Christ figure reaching out to the world. Thorvaldsen thought that this was a better depiction of Christ, and so incorporated that posture into the final work. We, too, should be following in the footsteps of Christ, reaching out to those who are struggling.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Wonderful singing and great music, thought provoking sermon and prayers. The hymns were glorious: "We have a gospel to proclaim", "Crown him with many crowns", "Lord enthroned in heavenly splendour", as well as (unsurprisingly) Bach's Heut' Triumphieret Gottes Sohn, BWV 630.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
It was bitterly cold and wet queuing outside. Compounded to that was some confusion about who could and couldn't come in, until the gentleman from St Martin-in-the-Fields appeared with his stash of tickets, all stickered with a label saying "Production Guest".
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
After the broadcast service had finished, the orchestra departed and the congregation were asked to come forward to take communion, to the accompaniment of organ music. We then had our own blessing and sang another hymn before leaving. When we finished, it was about 9.30pm, and most people were rushing home for the night. As I had arrived early, I headed down to the crypt to eat and was joined by members of the choir, who were very friendly and welcoming.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There wasn't any.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 – I'd like to visit this church for a regular Sunday morning service. My feeling is that this service had been put together with great care, both to meet the needs of the listeners at home as well as the present congregation. It was all very thoughtful and inclusive.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
That we are part of a much wider church.