St Saviour in the Marshes, Hackney, London

St Saviour in the Marshes, Hackney, London


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Mystery Worshipper: Nick O'Demus
Church: St Saviour in the Marshes
Location: Hackney, London
Date of visit: Sunday, 20 June 2010, 10:30am

The building

There has been a church on this busy road junction since Saxon times, but the medieval church was rebuilt in 1736-40 in the Palladian style by George Dance the Elder, the 18th century City of London surveyor and architect. Outside, the church has a handsome portico supported on four columns, and a breathtaking steeple, 192 feet high, and the building has an endearingly lived-in and down at heel look. One of the portico columns is adorned with a graffiti smiley face. Inside is a great classical barn of faded grandeur, with paint peeling from the walls and serried ranks of dark Victorian pews. Drawing the eye is a large and luminous stained glass window at the east end, which according to a church leaflet "mixes flashes of almost Fauvist brutalism with figurative depictions of the mentally ill." Uniquely, it shows the Christ Child on a hobby horse. A balcony was installed within the past decade on three sides of the interior, but looks original, and the organ (occasionally out of action) is over the entrance into the nave.

The church

Morning prayer is said throughout the week, and they have a soup kitchen for the homeless on Thursday nights. Unusually, the church plays host to prayer classes for Muslim children on Saturdays.

The neighborhood

Immediately opposite the church I passed Kebab Zero (specialising in chicken doner – spiced chicken wrapped in pita), a cash and carry, and a tattoo parlour called Prick. In the large, run-down gardens around the church were a number of gentlemen of the road sleeping on the grass. And sitting on the pavement by the church railings was a young chap reading Book Two of Lord of the Rings, with a cardboard box of coins by his side.

The cast

The preacher and celebrant was the Revd Adam Smallbone, who was assisted in distributing communion by the lay reader, Nigel. The reading was delivered by Adoha, an Afro-Caribbean matriarch.

What was the name of the service?

Holy Communion.

How full was the building?

Seventeen plus the vicar, in a building which could (at a rough estimate) seat 250 on the ground floor alone. The yawningly empty pews nicely complemented the crumbling building.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

A rather dishevelled man in his mid-20s was sitting on the church steps with his head in his hands as I walked up, and didn't move as I passed him. On the door was a sweet old dear who gave me a hymn book and service leaflet and said, "What a lovely morning," as if she was talking to no one in particular.

Was your pew comfortable?

It was an uncompromising 19th century pew, emphatically not built for comfort.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

I've never been inside a tomb, but I think this is what it might be like. A few scattered groups of people were sitting in the pews and occasionally waving to others they knew across the vast spaces of the church. I know it'll be a jinx to say it, but I actually missed the sound of crying babies ... there wasn't an infant in the place.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Welcome to St Saviour's on this lovely sunny morning. It's nice to see so many faces here today who are so familiar."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Hymns Ancient and Modern, and a battered, home-grown communion booklet called Holy Communion at St Saviour's.

What musical instruments were played?

Only the listed 18th century organ, which is in the gallery at the west end of the church. It was originally built with three manuals by Richard Bridge in 1757, and renovated by Bishop & Son in 1913. The magnificent case is decorated with golden cherubs, crowns and mitres. During the hymns, the quietest stop had to be selected so as not to drown out the tuneless bleatings of the congregation.

Did anything distract you?

A pew or two behind me, a large, bearded gentleman was lying comfortably on the back pew, his head on a hassock and snoring with gusto. He looked entirely settled there, and from the way the congregation ignored his walrus-like eruptions, I think he's a regular congregant and this is "his" pew.

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

Robes and candles, but no procession or smoke. This was standard Common Worship conducted in a relaxed sort of way ... so relaxed, in fact, that a rather unshaven man in the front pew reminded the vicar there was an opening hymn we hadn't sung. It was then sung with all the fervour of an atheist convention attempting "Jerusalem."

Exactly how long was the sermon?

2 minutes, which was three minutes too long.

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

0 – or rather, -1. The sermon was without scholarship or insight and he seemed as bored by his own words as the congregation were.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The Revd Adam Smallbone talked to his tiny and lifeless congregation about Jesus curing the blind man (Mark 10:46-52). He somehow tried to link this story to how people wear masks at the Notting Hill Carnival.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

"In the name of Christ, Amen." It was a huge relief to hear those closing words of the service.

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

There were many infernal points in the service, but possibly the most "other place"-ish moment was the sight of a betting slip that someone had thoughtfully deposited in the collection plate, which was otherwise full of small change. No notes.

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

I was efficiently collected by Ellie, on her way to where tea and coffee were being served at the back. She turned out to be the head teacher of the local C of E primary. One of her first questions was whether I had any children, and I wondered if she was thinking I was only in church to get my kids a much-coveted place.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Strong tea and quite foul instant coffee (although served in proper china cups and saucers in a fetching shade of yellow) were served at a trestle table, along with weak-looking orange squash. Plus Rich Tea biscuits.

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

1 – I'm thinking of trying St James's in Fulham, which I hear is awesome in a chilled but friendly way.

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

That's a bit like asking Abraham Lincoln's wife if she enjoyed the play anyway.

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

The whole service will forever be seared into my memory.

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