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650: All Saints, Margaret Street, London
Other reports | Comment on this report
All Saints Margaret Street
Mystery Worshipper: Thames Swimmer.
The church: All Saints, Margaret Street, London.
Denomination: Church of England.
The building: Gothic, and built in 1859, this is a large church in a cramped space behind Oxford St. The interior is covered in coloured tiles and murals, and is a glorious sacred space.
The church: All Saints is the Anglo-Catholic cathedral of London, where the best and highest Anglican liturgy can be found.
The neighbourhood: This is the north Soho shopping and media community of central London.
The cast: The Most Reverend Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Wales and then Archbishop-Designate of Canterbury, Celebrant and Preacher.
What was the name of the service?
Festival 2002 All Saints day high mass.

How full was the building?
Absolutely heaving. I was 45 mins early and still found myself in a far corner behind a pillar, from which seat I could see Archbishop Williams's right arm and shoulder when he was in the pulpit. The overflow went to the parish hall. There were more than 250 in the church itself.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
I went to the gate and was asked, "Are you here for high mass?" I replied that I was, and was handed a ticket. A lady inside gave me a service leaflet and whispered, "There are a few seats in the back corner."

Was your pew comfortable?
It was a plastic stacking chair, put at the end of a row of wooden church seats. The kneeler was meant for two but had to accommodate three, so I felt a bit pushed off the end, like the bird at the end of a row of birds on a branch.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
It was reverential and very quiet. There was much quiet bustling about by the sidespersons, trying to find seats for the crowd. A churchwarden came out just prior to mass, to announce that the festival collection would be used to buy new chairs better than the ones we were currently sitting on. An acolyte held up a sample of the new chairs – padded, and with a pocket for prayer books in the back – and gave it a twirl.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, amen."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
Bespoke service leaflet.

What musical instruments were played?
A majestic, thundering organ.

Did anything distract you?
Well, the size of the crowd was distracting, of course.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
All Saints is famed for the excellence of its worship, and that night was no exception. Clouds of incense floated in the air; Archbishop Williams processed in as if on a cloud of witnesses, blessing the throng with an aplomb worthy of the most splendid renaissance prelate. All that was missing were the pontifical gloves. And yet, he did it all with the common touch that Anglican bishops often have.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
16 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 – His voice was well-modulated, a pleasure to hear. He didn't bang on the pulpit or shout, but simply chose words to emphasise, and repeat, and imprint on the minds of his hearers. He made mysticism and abstruse theological concepts seem real to everyone, while avoiding trite words and truisms. One of the greatest preachers I have ever heard.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The Hebrew scriptures associate holiness with fullness, and point out our fear of this holiness. Our terror exposes our lack of fullness, or our hollowness, which is there to be filled with God. The eucharist fills us – the unspeakable density of truth is given to us by God to absorb into our very selves. What fills us also heals us. Sin sets into us because we have an unfilled hollowness. The holy terror that is associated with holiness in the Hebrew scriptures becomes for us a terror at the intense reality of God's fullness. Saints are holy simply because they allow their hollowness to be filled with the fullness of God. They know the fullness of God in themselves, and in the communion of saints, we receive the fullness of the grace of Christ.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The sermon, without a doubt. The singing, too, was wonderful. It is a great congregation that can, to a person, sing the final alleluia of "Ye watchers and ye holy ones" with three beats and not just two.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The woman who was saving three seats for her friends (only two of whom showed up), was a bit distracting and rather provoking, seeing as one of the seats had a much better (if more distant) view than my eventual seat did. The wooden kneeler which I was being elbowed from by my neighbour was also worthy of that other place. My knees rejoiced when they said to me, "Stand up in the house of the Lord."

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
There was the licensed bar in their parish club, but I had to get home for dinner, so I didn't go to it. As we left, I was amazed to see Archbishop Williams at the gate, shaking hands with those who were leaving. As I shook hands, I thanked him for his presence there and said, "God bless you," because it's certain that he'll need every blessing in the years ahead.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Doesn't apply, although I'm sure the wine in the club would have been lovely.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Oh, absolutely! I would say it made me even happier to be an Anglican christian.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
I am torn between the sermon, and the singing for my most-enduring memory.
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