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City Presbyterian, London, England
City Presbyterian, Aldersgate Street, London.
From the outside, the church is a relatively uninspiring red
brick 18th century building, almost something you would expect
Calvinists to be meeting in. However, the inside is decidedly
un-Presbyterian and very much reflects the building's more iconic
Anglican past, with an array of very impressive stained glass
windows ranging from St John to John Wesley, as well as dozens
of ornate cornices and striking religious paintings.
The congregation is the Free Church of Scotland's outpost in
central London, having met in this building since 2003. It had
previously met at St Nicholas Cole Abbey and traces its roots
as a congregation back to the 1940s. In addition to Sunday morning
and evening worship, they offer Bible study in Portuguese as
well as Afrikaans worship, the latter reflecting their special
interest in reaching London's South African community.
The church is in the City of London, which is very much the
financial heartbeat of London during the week but pretty quiet
on the weekend, with the exception of a few tourists. The church
is opposite the Museum of London and a few hundred yards from
St Paul's Cathedral. I had the pleasant experience of listening
to the cathedral's bells ring out as I walked to my music-free
Presbyterian worship. I spent a few minutes before the service
in the adjacent Postman's Park, a small, peaceful garden square
and home to numerous memorials recalling the heroic acts of
various men, women and children who had lost their lives attempting
to save the lives of others. It seemed like an appropriate,
albeit sober, way to get into frame of mind for the service
Matt Hornby, who is not the regular minister but helps with
mid-week meetings, conducted the entire service. Mr Hornby confessed
to being an accountant by training, as opposed to a fully-fledged,
ordained minister. He was probably in his 30s, English (judging
by accent) and looked somewhat like the actor Matthew Broderick
(with a tidy beard). I learned later that the congregation had
just started to search for a new full-time minister, as its
most recent pastor (a Scotsman) had just left a few weeks earlier
to minister at a church in Mississippi, USA.
The date & time:
10 August 2008, 11.00am.
What was the name of the service?
How full was the building?
At the start of the service there were about 20 people scattered
throughout the main floor, but within 10 minutes that number
had roughly doubled to about 35-40 as some families with young
children filled in the back rows. In the end, the main body
of the building was probably about 30 percent full, but it didn't
feel particularly empty. There was no one at all in the gallery,
which seemed to be normal.
Did anyone welcome you
A middle-aged lady shook my hand firmly and gave me a brief
but friendly welcome, and her male colleague handed me a copy
of the notice sheet and psalm book. There were about a dozen
or so people sitting in the church when I entered. I took a
seat in an empty pew – most people seemed to be working on
the "personal pew" approach at that stage. No one joined me
in the pew during the service.
Was your pew comfortable?
The pew was everything you might expect of a Presbyterian pew
– it was narrow and hard with an upright back (although, in
fairness, it was probably put in there originally by the Anglicans).
There was a thin cushion in the requisite Presbyterian blue
that helped take the edge off. To be honest, I found it perfectly
acceptable, having been used to such church seats from childhood.
As a concession to the modern fad for comfort, the Presbyterians
had replaced the front half a dozen rows of pews with individual
chairs, which looked more comfortable. The congregation seemed
to split 50:50 on the benefits of such comfort, judging by where
How would you describe the pre-service
Largely hushed and reverential. About half a dozen women sat
together in the softer seats near the front and spoke to each
other in pairs. They appeared to be very cheery. There were
another half a dozen people, mainly youngish men, sitting individually
in silence throughout the church. The speaker and a middle-aged
lady, who would later lead the singing, chatted at the front
about the choice of psalms to be sung in the service.
What were the exact opening words of the
"Good morning and welcome to London City Presbyterian Church.
My name is Matt Hornby." Mr Hornby then gave a brief description
of his background and made some church announcements. They all
related to BBQs, picnics and lunches – seems like Presbyterians
appreciate their food.
What books did the congregation
use during the service?
The only two books used were The Holy Bible, New International
Version, for the reading; and Sing Psalms, the
new metrical version of the Book of Psalms with the Scottish
psalter. There was a notice sheet but it wasn't really referenced
during the service.
What musical instruments
None. The Free Church of Scotland does not use any musical instruments
at all. We sang Psalm 100 and Psalm 118 (in two parts) with
the help of a female cantor. I wasn't holding out much hope
for an uplifting performance, given that there were fewer than
40 people in a building that had a very high ceiling and poor
acoustics, but it was very impressive. Several ladies seated
opposite me really provided the backbone to the singing and
everyone else chipped in to make it a truly joyful sound.
Did anything distract you?
Everything in the church appeared solid and well designed –
except for the modern, glass/plastic lectern used by the preacher.
Mr Hornby was relatively animated (by Presbyterian standards
anyway), so it seemed like any time he moved his hands or a
paper it would cause the lectern to move or make a noise. Otherwise,
it was hard not to be distracted by the ornate beauty of the
architecture. I found myself occasionally reading the narrative
on some of the stained glass windows.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or
This was the antithesis of everything evangelical worship seems
to be these days. No bass guitar, no overwhelming drums, no
tattooed guy singing endless, banal contemporary lyrics. No
hands in the air, no outward expression of emotion. It was all
very Scottish, very Calvinist, very much what you would have
expected from the Free Church of Scotland. While it certainly
wouldn't be for everyone, I found the low-key, reverential but
assured style very engaging. There was a sense of inward, reflective
engagement with God, as opposed to a particularly interactive,
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 For someone who was an accountant by training, Mr Hornby
was actually a pretty accomplished speaker. He had an understated
speaking style and rarely raised his voice, but he did use his
hands and arms frequently to express himself (and occasionally
knock the lectern). He was self-deprecating and used occasional
but appropriate humour.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon
The sermon was on Matthew 21:28-46 (the parables of the disobedient
son and the wicked tenant farmers). Mr Hornby made good use
of modern analogies, especially Robin Hood (it seemed like he
would rather have been an outlaw than an accountant) and Lord
of the Rings. He highlighted how much of a shock the parables
would have been to the original audience when the Pharisees,
not the tax collectors and prostitutes, turned out to be the
bad guys. He then provided some useful modern application to
the congregation by substituting accountants who lead Bible
studies (like himself) for the Pharisees.
Which part of the service was like being in
The singing of metrical psalms.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
There really wasn't anything particularly like "the other place."
If I had to choose one thing, it would be the perceived homogeneity
of the congregation. I only spotted one non-white person (an
Asian lady) in the entire church. I did see a "Juan" mentioned
in the announcement sheet among more traditionally Scottish
names like Iain and Angus. As you might expect with Presbyterianism,
there also appeared to be some Afrikaners and Dutch in the ranks.
But I thought there might be a little more racial diversity,
given the church's location in central London.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
After the service ended, most people turned to someone sitting
nearby and started a quiet conversation. As I was sitting on
my own, I sat in silence for about 30 seconds and was just about
to head over to the coffee table when I was approached by a
middle-aged gentleman who introduced himself. He was very friendly
in a low-key Scottish way. We talked for about five minutes
about the church, living in London, and the general lack of
Presbyterians in the city. It was all pleasant and I could have
chatted longer, but made my excuses and left before anyone discovered
my Ship of Fools calling card.
How would you describe the after-service
There was a reasonable choice of water, coloured water masquerading
as fruit drinks in plastic cups, and the obligatory free trade
coffee/tea. More impressively, there were two large baskets
of jaffa cakes and other chocolate biscuits – easily enough
for three each. People were reasonably slow in heading toward
the coffee table as they were engaged in conversations, so some
of the toddlers took the opportunity to stuff their faces.
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 I found the sermon to be very engaging and the people
appeared friendly. It seemed like it would be a reasonably easy
place to find a good church community. I loved the metrical
psalms, but I wonder if after a few months the novelty might
wear off and I might start hankering after a grunge band banging
out some Stuart Townend songs.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a
Yes, definitely. It was refreshing, encouraging, and seemed
like an entirely appropriate way to step out of the chaos of
London life on a Sunday morning.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
Two worlds colliding – old school Presbyterians singing wonderful
metrical psalms, surrounded by beautiful Anglican architecture.
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