St Mary Abbots has, at 278 feet, the tallest spire in London. It's a Victorian Gothic landmark, built in 1872 by the pre-eminent architect of the time and place, Sir George Gilbert Scott, toward the end of his career. Sadly for him, he didn't live to see the spire, but the work was completed by his son. I approached from the southeast corner, which involves walking through a long mood-setting cloister. It stands on sacred ground - there has been a church dedicated to St Mary on this site since the 13th century. This is the fourth church building, each one larger than its predecessor, and many artifacts from the previous churches are retained, including memorial plaques on the wall of a side chapel and some of the ten bells. There's a crossing in the nave, with a functional chapel in the north transept, while the south side appears less used. Behind that crossing, doors open to the cloistered walkway on the south side and a lane on the north. The west door leads to the church schoolyard, and all the doors were open on the night I was there. The nave is tall, long and narrow, with two rows of pews running the length of it, interrupted by the crossing between the doors, behind the actual crossing. A shorter set of pews in the north chapel, which is dedicated to St Paul, give a feeling of elbow room in the right place. The high windows are full of stained glass, which makes it a dim old Victorian church, but I found it more prayerful than gloomy, and there is a lot of glittering gold mosaic in the reredos. The overall effect is impressive, like a small cathedral.
There are at least three services every day of the week and five on Sunday, according to the newsletter, so it not only looks like a cathedral, it acts like one too. As the mother church of Kensington, it has strong links with several local churches and the parish includes St Philip's, Earl's Court, and Christ Church Kensington. The nearby St Mary Abbots Centre has theatre, reception and meeting rooms to hire, (but the reception after the service I attended took place in the attached school hall). They run seasonal courses (Lent, Advent, etc.) and have a long-running book club. They often donate the entire collection to some charitable cause. The beneficiary of the collection from the service I attended was the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, and the newsletter indicated that a previous Sunday's collections (all five of them) went to the aid of the victims of the recent flood disaster in Pakistan. A glance at Google Images reveals that the current prime minister, David Cameron, attends with his family. Princess Diana was a "member of the parish", living in nearby Kensington Palace, and St Mary Abbots held a massive memorial service for her. There is a highly rated primary school, which holds a service in the church every Thursday during term time, and four age-levels of Sunday school. Lots of young families attend the church. (Draw your own dots.)
Kensington is a very "good" London address. It's rich. I mean, wealthy. No rundown or boarded up shops around here, but up-market boutiques, fashionable restaurants, expensive apartments and the ubiquitous coffee house chains. There isn't a particular abundance of pubs near the busy corner on which the church stands, strangely. Kensington Gardens, the western portion of London's Hyde Park, is a diamond ring's throw away. The Royal Albert Hall is within walking distance, as is the Holland Park Opera. It's bounded by Notting Hill, Earl's Court and Knightsbridge, so one isn't in any danger of wandering into the slums. Therefore, St Mary Abbots attracts a well-heeled congregation and as such has a bit of a reputation for exclusivity, but that might say more about the people who feel excluded than the regular worshippers. The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea is the most densely populated place in Britain, and today probably hosts citizens of every nation in the world, either as residents or tourists.
The Very Revd Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster Abbey, preached. The Revd Gillean Craig, Vicar of Kensington, celebrated. There were four other clergy in attendance but I didn't get all their names and they didn't have "speaking" parts, except for the Revd Gareth Wardell, who deaconed. There were two acolytes, and an adult choir. The director of music, Mark Uglow, played the organ.
What was the name of the service?Solemn Eucharist of the Feast of the Nativity of The Blessed Virgin Mary. This is the church's patronal festival, and my inspiration for this report was to do a 10-year update on the MW report that was filed ten years ago on this church.
How full was the building?
Maybe half full, but it was a weekday evening! All of the pews in the front half of the nave were well populated. It was nice that there wasn't one of those five-row Anglican gaps at the front. Behind the crossing, the numbers thinned out, but it was still respectable. I would say upwards of a hundred worshippers, plus the clergy and choir.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes, a woman welcomed me graciously and gave me the hymnbook and order of service booklet.
Was your pew comfortable?
It was just a pew, with a kneeler hanging on a hook. But there was plenty of space and enough stand-sit-kneel action not to get a numb bum.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The organ was playing and it was quietly reverent. People might have been talking quietly to the person beside them, or not, but there was no loud chatter or moving around meeting and greeting.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
The choir assembled at the back of the church. The vicar came to the lectern and said a few words of welcome: first to the guest preacher, whom he described as an old friend, followed by a special welcome to visitors. The choir then sang the introit motet ("Sing joyfully" Byrd), we all sang the introit hymn as the choir and clergy processed to their places, and then the actual service began with the words: "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
A special order of service booklet and The New English Hymnal. This is the same hymnbook as they were using ten years ago, and my copy had been repaired with green duct tape - it might have been the very copy the previous Mystery Worshipper had held.
What musical instruments were played?
The organ, about which I know nothing, but it had an impressive set of pipes. I presume it is a good one because students from the Royal College of Music regularly give recitals in the church.
Did anything distract you?
One member of the altar party disappeared. Vanished! I counted them in procession - there were six. When they recessed, there were five. Luckily the service was over by the time I had this crisis of self-doubt about my observational skills!
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was high church, grand vestments, lots of candles and incense. A good many people knelt for the prayers. The vidar celebrated the eucharist ad orientem and chanted the eucharistic prayer in a most majestic voice. The dean and a woman whose name I didn't get were gloriously vested in floor length copes of gold with a bit of red not matching. Two assistant priests were in matching white and gold chasubles. The one who disappeared had been more plainly vested, in a white hooded alb like the two acolytes. After communion, the altar party processed to a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary, spectacularly bedecked in a ring of white and purple/blue flowers, and recited a solemn act of dedication involving incense and holy water. They remained there while the choir sang the Ave Maria. It was all very formal, but not stiff. Reverent.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – Dean Hall started with some jokey material about London churches, which lightened things up, and then launched into the sermon proper in a serious tone. He used notes, but used them well and it didn't detract, though I might have given him a higher score if he'd done it as well without.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Being the feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, it was naturally about Mary. Dean Hall spoke briefly about the Annunciation, specifically about paintings of it, and linked this to the gospel reading (Luke 1:46-55, the Song of Mary). I was expecting the predictable lecture about the virtue of obedience, so I was delighted when he veered off and talked about how Marian devotion is justified in the gospel of St John. First, at the wedding in Cana, Mary persuades Jesus to take action, ignoring his protests that his time had not come. Does she not still intercede for us directly with her son? Secondly, at the foot of the cross, Jesus puts his mother and the beloved disciple into each other's care. We are all encouraged to be that disciple. Mary has maternal care over us.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The music was lovely. The choir was excellent and the congregation was lusty. I mean, we sang lustily. The vicar's voice as he chanted the eucharistic prayer was also very moving. So, the musical parts!
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Well, call me cynical, but all those young families who attend on Sundays ... where were they? There was not one child in the place. And the congregation was predominantly white - just a few grains of pepper in the salt. This does not reflect the cosmopolitan neighbourhood. The vicar was expressively, explicitly welcoming, but is his flock as warm as the shepherd? And where were all the little lambs?
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
At the end, the vicar announced that everyone was invited to stay for refreshments in the school hall. Clergy were stationed by all the doors, shaking hands and repeating the invitation. So I went across. But then, nobody spoke to me. When I got brave and walked up to people, they were nice enough. But it was a bit awkward. It might be quite different on a Sunday morning. However, this was a party and people were talking to their friends.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
It was a spread of home-made goodies, mostly, and glasses of wine. Very nice indeed.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 – I can't afford to live anywhere near there, so travel issues mean that my attendance could only ever be occasional.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, I was very glad I went. Sophisticated prayer.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
I think the sermon will stay with me for a while. And the memory of all the gold mosaic of the reredos, glittering in the dim church.