St Mary's Bourne Street, London

St Mary's Bourne Street, Belgravia, London


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Mystery Worshipper: The Contemplative
Church: St Mary's Bourne Street
Location: Belgravia, London
Date of visit: Sunday, 22 February 2009, 11:00am

The building

A sombre-looking dark red brick church from 1874, it squats on the corner of two residential streets, cleverly squeezed in among houses, and can only be seen properly from the south side; the slender bell cote and slate roof make an interesting contrast to the general heaviness. Inside, it is a typical Victorian high church: heavy columns; an elaborate altar displaying the host, gold crucifix and tall candles; an imposing pulpit, complete with heavy tester, sitting in a rather odd position almost among the congregation; wonderful dark carved woodwork around the organ loft at the rear.

The church

The church was apparently intended as a servants' church and to minister to nearby slums, but from the outset the toffs and manual workers worshipped alongside one another. Now there seems to be a mix of double-barrelled names, titles and ordinary folk. The congregation are mostly white, with a high proportion of men. There's a noticeable absence of young families, but evidently they are catered for at nearby St Barnabas, which shares the same vicar.

The neighborhood

This is affluent Belgravia, with fine white terraces of family homes alongside flats, pubs, restaurants and fine-art shops around Orange Square, with its small statue of the young Mozart with his violin (Mozart stayed here while giving performances and writing his first two symphonies). Victoria coach and rail stations are nearby.

The cast

The Revd Alasdair Coles, parish priest; the Revd Stuart Leamy, assistant priest. The Very Revd Gilleasbuig Macmillan, minister of St Giles' Cathedral, Edinburgh, was the guest preacher.

What was the name of the service?

High Mass.

How full was the building?

Well filled, with people occupying all the rows, not all lurking at the back.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Two friendly smiling ladies welcomed me and gave me the leaflet for the service. One was selling copies of the book chosen for the approaching Lent course, but she made no attempt to push it onto me. People smiled or said good morning as they took their seats around me.

Was your pew comfortable?

Rows of simple but robust dark wooden chairs with the usual slot on the back for books. Perfectly acceptable for the duration of the service.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

The atmosphere was quiet, with a barely discernible hum of people greeting one another. People streamed in during the 10 minutes before the service; there were few latecomers. An atmosphere of expectancy, as in the theatre before curtain-up.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"In the name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

New English Hymnal; Order of Service for High Mass (purple booklet); plus leaflet containing the order of service for Quinquagesima Sunday. The Book of Common Prayer was in every seat also.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ, violin, cello.

Did anything distract you?

A gentleman behind me fell noisily to his knees to pray, pressing his weight against the back of my chair; I had to lean forward to avoid being headbutted from behind. A young child (the only one present) babbled, sang and chortled at intervals throughout, but this enhanced, rather than distracted – a contrast to the overall solemnity, perhaps reminding us not to take ourselves too seriously.

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

High Church Catholic liturgy, acted out like a piece of theatre, proceeding smoothly in a well practised way, everyone knowing their part, in constant movement in their colourful vestments (green and gold predominantly). The music was superb: organist plus an obviously professional choir of three or four voices, with violin and cello in addition. We sang "Love Divine" and I've never heard it better sung. You have to concentrate on this kind of service, and there was a sense of a whole body of people totally focused on worship. The order of service booklet and the service leaflet together gave a clear outline of exactly what was happening at every stage and made it easy for a visitor to follow and feel involved.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

10 minutes.

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

7 – An unemotional dry delivery, not without humour, read from notes, like a mini lecture. No particular contemporary references other than to carnival (it was the Sunday before Lent). He gave an impression of deep scholarship worn lightly, and packed a lot into a little space.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The reading was Luke 18:31-43 (Jesus heals the blind man). The sermon was basically on seeing and looking: the faces we wear for different people on different occasions; how we see each other. At carnival time many people don masks; how surprised we might be to discover who is wearing them, seeing them as utterly different from who we thought they were. We each have several faces. We may be like any one or all of the seeds in the parable of the sower yet however unpromising the soil, somehow the seed bears fruit; we need long term vision. The blind man whom Jesus heard and healed saw Jesus. How do we see Jesus, and others?

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

Wonderful music, hymns brought to life by organ and musicians, and sung by us all with passion. Beautiful and witty organ voluntary at the end. The sense of order and everything running smoothly, with no distractions, enabling total concentration on the service. In an elaborate service like this, the simplicity of the act of receiving the eucharist was very moving.

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

I could not help noting the exclusion of lay people from the main drama, though I appreciate that this is the Anglo-Catholic way. I felt mildly irritated by the sight of big men standing around in pinnies doing not much.

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

People streamed out, all willing to say good morning, but nothing more.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Drinks were on offer next door at the presbytery, served in proper glasses by two pleasant ladies. They were not free – 50p juice, £2 wine, but since I was new I was not charged. There was quite a large crowd. We stood all the time trying to hear one another above the hubbub. There seemed to be a large proportion of clergy. The lay people were friendly, the other lot more reserved.

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

3 – While this could not be my regular church because I do not share the Anglo-Catholic way, I might return to enjoy the focused uninterrupted order of service which so many churches have sacrificed in favour of more social, or child-centred, or casual style.

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

Yes. That immediate sense of fellowship, the singing that lifted me out of myself, the sense of purpose and focus, the worship that gave me a real sense of the presence of God, the simple act of receiving the bread and wine, after thorough preparation by all that went before.

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

The sense of truly focused waiting on God.

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