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|1564: St George's,
|Mystery Worshipper: Lavender Waters.
The church: St George's,
Denomination: Church of England, Diocese
The building: The church, which started life as a warehouse, was given to
the diocese in 1892. It has a white stone exterior, with a bas
relief of St George and the dragon above a fine pair of bronze
doors. Inside it is rectangular, with a gallery containing an
organ at the liturgical west end. The altar is hard up against
the eastern wall. The interior is painted in a couple of shades
of grey, which, although rather tatty, is just right as the
light coming in is so bright. Several of the windows have stained
memorial glass in them, commemorating the likes of a former
provost of Eton and the poet Robert Browning. There are plaques
let into the walls detailing various expatriates, and a war
memorial with crossed Union Jack and Stars and Stripes over
a memorial book and a brass shell case. This is one of the few
churches in Venice which is locked when there is not a service
in progress. We went past several times over the course of three
days and it was shut every time.
The church: The church serves a small expatriate community and any English-speaking
tourists who happen upon it.
The neighbourhood: The history of Venice, called by many the most beautiful city
in the world, is well known. Since the 19th century, however,
the city has fallen into decline, with the old palazzi, churches
and other architectural treasures kept up primarily for the
sake of tourists against the constant threat of flood damage
and decay. Despite that, though, the city has not lost its soul.
St George's is right next to the Grand Canal and very close
to the Accademia Bridge. The day I was there it was well situated
for observing the Vogalonga boat race, being very close to the
The cast: The Revd John-Henry Bowden, chaplain.
The date & time: Pentecost Sunday, 11 May 2008, 10.30am.
What was the name of the service?
How full was the building?
With a squeeze, the building might seat 120, but there were
only about 40 of us present. Craning my neck to count more precisely
would have been bad manners.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
No. The sidespersons were so taken up with collating their leaflets
that they didn't speak to anyone. Nobody spoke when I had sat
down. We followed the 1662 liturgy and so there was no exchange
Was your pew comfortable?
The pew was adequate, but the kneeling bench, upholstered in
ginger vinyl, was absolute torture, being oddly spaced and very
hard. The faded cushion at the altar rail was, in contrast,
blissfully soft and springy.
How would you describe the pre-service
Quiet and well behaved.
What were the exact opening words of the
"Good morning and welcome."
What books did the congregation use during the
Book of Common Prayer and the New English Hymnal.
In my prayer book, at the spot where prayers are asked for the
Queen, someone had written in the names of the presidents of
the United States and the Republic of Italy.
What musical instruments were played?
Organ, played slowly and deliberately.
Did anything distract
As the sermon began, a woman shot forward to the pulpit and
moved a vase (which looked like a brass shell case) of flowers
away from the chaplain, as it might have got dislodged had he
become oratorically overheated (which he didn't). Outside the
church, spectators cheered as the Vogalonga boat racers crossed
the finish line, and for a brief and insane moment I imagined
they might have been cheering the sermon.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip,
happy clappy, or what?
Stiff-upper-lip, middle of the road, middle aged, middle class.
Much like an English village church 40 years ago, even down
to the flowers. This felt just right, being abroad. No slip-ups,
not even on the organ. The celebrant faced eastward and wore
a fairly modern red chasuble. There were no servers. Five enormous
candlesticks stood in the sanctuary, and I spent some time wondering
what the fate of the sixth might have been, as five seemed so
incomplete. As the service progressed, I had a bit of fun trying
to decide who in the congregation was a regular and who was
a tourist, and if the latter, where they were from.
Exactly how long was the
On a scale of 1-10, how
good was the preacher?
8 Chaplain Bowden was cut from the mould of a school
chaplain – hearty, wholesome and sensible, with nothing
too indigestible concealed in his message.
In a nutshell, what was
the sermon about?
Be grateful for and use the gifts we have been given. We should
not envy the different gifts given to others, but get on and
make the best of ours.
Which part of the service
was like being in heaven?
It was a very hot Venetian Sunday, and the building felt cool
and peaceful. And here I was far from England, but the whole
experience evoked memories of being a child at home. I thought
of various dear departed bastions of the Church of England.
Whether such nostalgia points to heaven, though, I would hesitate
And which part was like
being in... er... the other place?
Perhaps the fact that the regulars were too busy collating their
leaflets to speak to strangers. There was a rather sniffy italicised
note in the leaflet telling me that €5.00 was not enough
to put in the collection. Had that been all I had to give, I
would have felt inadequate.
What happened when you
hung around after the service looking lost?
I followed the flow and ended up talking to the chaplain, who
was very sociable. Nobody else in the congregation said a word
How would you describe the after-service
There was cold water and orange juice served in disposable plastic cups, accompanied by crisps and biscuits. Just right for a hot morning.
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 If I lived in Venice, I'm sure I would settle here.
I'm equally sure the regulars would welcome me. I felt their
reticence might have stemmed from their knowing that only one
visitor in a thousand might ever join them as a permanent member
of the congregation, so why bother?
Did the service make you feel glad to be a
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The cool calm in the middle of a very crowded city.
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