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502: St Anne's, Soho, London
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St Anne's, Soho, London
Mystery Worshipper: Cool Dude.
The church: St Anne's, Soho, London.
Denomination: Church of England.
The building: A Wren church destroyed by bombs in the Second World War, St Anne's was re-opened in 1991 and incorporated into a new development of offices and housing association flats. The old church tower stands as the main ornament of a little park in Wardour Street. But sadly this provides no access to the church. The church entrance is round the block and inconspicuous unless you look carefully. It comprises an iron-gated archway at 55 Dean Street, next door to a shop selling catering supplies. A discrete red sign over the gateway announces it as St Anne's, Soho. Inside, the church has a low ceiling and uninspiring architecture, though it is welcoming and comfortable. The worship space is expanded on Sundays to accommodate larger numbers at worship by rolling back the wall of the community hall. A board had the inscribed names of those who had contributed to the rebuilding in 1991 – a good Soho mix including The Lord Mayor, The British Board of Film Classification and The Dog and Duck.
The church: This is the parish church of Soho and reflects the diversity of the area. There was an admirable spread of ages, ethnic groups and of family groups and singles. There were one or two fidgety young children; but several in the 6-10 age group were well behaved – in fact they were positively attentive to the service. One enters the church down a ramped corridor; one member of the congregation was a wheelchair user. How many London churches can a wheelchair user get into unaided? – not many, I fear.
The neighbourhood: Soho is squalid or vibrant – depending on your point of view. The tarts and porn shops have mostly gone, chased away by a council clean up. The French and Italian delicatessens have sadly gone, too, priced out by escalating rents. In their place have come gay bars, of which there are a couple of dozen in the vicinity, and coffee shops. The coffee shops are everywhere and doubtless yet more are opening as you read this. On Sunday morning the streets are fairly quiet and the resident population is recovering from the boisterous street life of Soho Saturday nights... if they are not at St Anne's.
The cast: Rev. Clare Herbert.
What was the name of the service?
Holy Communion, 11.00am Sunday.

How full was the building?
Hardly a spare seat. Capacity is about 45. Afterwards I was told numbers are usually around 15-20. But this was Mothering Sunday, apparently a crowd puller.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes, the Vicar was at the door. An assistant was handing out the service sheets: a warm welcome. There was a coat rack near the door where I left my coat.

Was your pew comfortable?
It was a chair and very comfortable. In spite of the fact that the church was built as part of an office development money must have been short and most seats were sponsored or given in memory. Mine was inscribed "Hetty Henrey".

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
No music, some chat.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"It is a pleasure to welcome you to St Anne's," – said as though it was meant.

What books did the congregation use during the service?
A service booklet with an inserted sheet for today's hymns and prayers – broadly ASB with modern language options. A note in the service sheet promised a Common Worship version in a couple of weeks time. For the final prayer the vicar said she hoped the heavens wouldn't fall in as a result, but she felt that on Mothering Sunday we should say not "Father of All..." but "Father and Mother of All..." We did, and they didn't.

What musical instruments were played?
Organ. An electronic job, which sounded quite like a pipe organ until played loudly.

Did anything distract you?
Above the altar is a crucifix modelled on a background of cruciform sheet metal. The Christ figure is in very low relief, so low that in places it fades into the grey metal surround and becomes unclear. I'm afraid the effect was strongly reminiscent of a cretaceous fossilised skeleton emerging – in some places indistinctly, at others clearly delineated – from a block of grey stone. As a symbol of resurrection a "fossilised" image doesn't do it for me.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Informal and friendly. The vicar was not assisted by anyone and at times she could have done with a server: she ran out of hands. She has to set up her own reading desk during the hymn to read the Gospel whilst carrying both service sheet and bible. Otherwise readings were read from the front without a desk. There was a creed in our service sheets but we didn't say or sing it. The only other person who was named in the service was "Paul". He turned out to be a tenor with an excellent voice who sang the responses to the prayers and gave an immaculate rendition of Mozart's Ave Maria – a special treat for Mothering Sunday. The response to the prayers of intercession was, "Make me a channel of your peace." Why do I always think of plumbing when hearing this?

Exactly how long was the sermon?
14 minutes.

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

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The vicar apologised that both the reader and preacher were ill. Nobody would have guessed and she managed well. She preached on the birth of Moses, from the Old Testament reading. Pharaoh's daughter showed the compassion that is central to the ministry of the church.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The communion was received in one large circle – just about possible with these numbers. A good sense of community.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The final hymn was, "He's got the whole world in His hands." If you go the full Pentecostal Monty, have a noisy drum kit, a gospel choir and an excited congregation who pepper the words with impromptu calls of "Halleluiah" and "Sweet Jesus", this chant might cut the mustard. But inserted into this service as a hymn, it sat like a cuckoo in the nest.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
It is clear that most people here know each other well and are probably neighbours in Soho. The after-service was therefore very convivial, with lots of chat: most people stayed. The vicar spoke to me and made me feel welcome, but nobody else even acknowledged my existence, so preoccupied were they with their animated conversation. After five minutes or so I slipped away.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Instant in a ceramic cup, and with a saucer.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 – I think the near invisibility of the church on the street means they get few visitors. In spite of its cosmopolitan setting this is a local village church – and they don't seem geared to welcoming visitors. If I lived in Soho it night be an attractive choice.

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

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
"Make me a channel..."
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