St Mary-le-Strand, The Strand, London

St Mary-le-Strand, The Strand, London


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Mystery Worshipper: Aggie
Church: St Mary-le-Strand
Location: The Strand, London
Date of visit: Thursday, 23 March 2006, 1:05pm

The building

St Mary-le-Strand is one of London's Queen Anne churches, built between 1715 and 1725 during the reign of Queen Anne. The building was designed by Scots-born architect James Gibbs, a Roman Catholic. Gibbs studied in Rome, and, like Christopher Wren, was greatly influenced by Italian church architecture. This is reflected in the design of St Mary-le-Strand. Inside the church, there are ornate and detailed carvings on the ceiling above the sanctuary, representing the worship of God in heaven (featuring a host of angel faces – more about these later) and on earth (featuring grapes and ears of wheat, signifying the eucharist). On the apex of the ceiling above the sanctuary is a triangular shape representing the Trinity, inscribed with Hebrew writing.

The church

St Mary-le-Strand has been the official church of the Women's Royal Naval Service (Wrens) since 1982, and holds an annual carol service for the Wrens. It also has a church school for children. The eucharist is celebrated on Sundays at 11.00am and Tuesdays and Thursdays at 1.05pm. Music plays an important part at St Mary-le-Strand, and musical recitals are held regularly on Wednesday lunchtimes.

The neighborhood

The Strand has undergone many changes throughout the ages. From the 13th century onward it was lined with the waterside mansions of the aristocracy. But by Georgian times it had become a notorious haunt of prostitutes and pickpockets. By the mid-19th century its fortunes had reversed themselves again, such that Prime Minister Disraeli called it one of the finest streets in Europe. Today the Strand is lined with shops, offices, theatres, pubs and restaurants. Some of St Mary-le-Strand's neighbours are Kings College, BBC Bush House, Australia House, Somerset House, and the Royal Courts of Justice.

The cast

The Rev. William Gulliford, rector, was the celebrant. He was assisted by another priest whose name was not given

What was the name of the service?

Sung Eucharist

How full was the building?

Sadly, not very full at all. There were only five of us in the congregation at the start of mass, although two or three tourists drifted in during the course of the service.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Yes. As I approached, the sacristan bade me a good afternoon. He was outside in the porch tolling the bell. Upon entering, I was greeted by a sidesperson who offered a cheery good afternoon as she handed me the order of service and hymn book. As I went to sit in the pew, two people sitting in front of me turned round, smiled and said hello.

Was your pew comfortable?

Yes. Wooden pew with hassock.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Quiet and prayerful.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

New English Hymnal and Common Worship, Order 1, Traditional Language.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ. The service was Merbecke, sung by a woman cantor joined at times by the organist.

Did anything distract you?

Yes, the ceiling above the sanctuary. I admit that I spent so much time staring at it that I wasn't concentrating on the mass. During the epistle, I was trying to count the seemingly hundreds and hundreds of angel faces, and wondering how long it would take to clean them and the other carvings, or indeed if it was even possible to do so.

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

Anglo-Catholic and quite stiff upper-lip. Clergy and servers, thurifer, crucifer, torch-bearers, all in full vestments (but no birettas). Clouds and clouds of very sweet pungent incense (in fact, when I came out of the church and walked back down the Strand to my office I could smell it in my hair!). Bells were enthusiastically jangled at various points during the eucharistic prayer and at the elevation. East-facing altar. Everything was dignified and perfectly done without being fussy or overly self-conscious.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

There was no sermon. Straight after the gospel were the prayers of intercession.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

All of it! St Mary-le-Strand is a real gem of a church, both aesthetically and liturgically. It also had a wonderfully quiet and spiritual atmosphere. I especially enjoyed Father Gulliford's chanting, most notably at the collect, sursum corda, and canon.

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

St Mary's is on a sort of island in the middle of the Strand, and the traffic noise from outside made it difficult to hear some of the service.

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

I was invited to stay for coffee both by one of the sidespeople and the rector, but I couldn't stay, although I would like to have done – had to go back to work. The rector was friendly, asking me where I was from, where did I work, would I visit again, etc.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

I promise I'll stay to sample the coffee next time!

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

10 – Definitely, perhaps more. It is my kind of church, squarely within my personal comfort zone. However, I was most disappointed that so few people make it their place of worship on Thursday lunchtimes, especially given the number of neighbouring offices and other workplaces and the centrality of the location.

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

Yes – very much so. I will definitely be going there again.

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

The angel faces!

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