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The Collegiate Church of St Peter at Westminster, London.
Church of England.
Westminster Abbey is many things: a masterpiece of early English
gothic architecture; a royal burial place; a kind of national
pantheon, with monuments and tombs of the great the good and
the self-important filling every available space, and together
making the finest collection of memorial sculpture in Europe.
The Abbey is a stage set for coronations and state events; a
saint's shrine (Edward the Confessor's). It also functions a
bit like a cathedral, with its own choir school and choristers,
a chapter and, I hear it rumoured, a juicy financial endowment.
Like a cathedral, there are several Sunday services. Its famous
twin west towers may be one of the newest bits of the building
(they were added in the 18th century) but they have instant
recognition. As a brand, Westminster Abbey is a mighty global
I am not sure that Westminster Abbey has a community – except
of the virtual sort. An ecclesiastical anomaly, it survived
the dissolution of the abbeys as a royal peculiar (i.e. not
answering to any bishop) and steers its own way. One of the
best known ecclesiastical buildings anywhere, it is in summer
months besieged by mass tourism. Indeed, it charges a hefty
admission fee to visitors. I don't think I am the only Londoner
who feels overwhelmed by the mass of visitors milling around
and completely blocking the pavements round about. Its very
popularity (and admission charge) seems a reason to pass by
quickly, abandoning the site to the hospitality trade and the
tour busses that constantly make reverential stops, On this
day I heard a bus commentary remind customers that Princess
Diana's funeral took place there in 1997 – seemingly the most
interesting fact in its 900 year history.
The neighbourhood: The Abbey's neighbours are Parliament, the new Supreme Court, the offices of parliamentary lobbyists, the Treasury and the Church Commissioners.
The only member of the substantial altar party whose name I
could discern was the Revd Michael Macey, minor canon, who gave
the sermon. Unnamed participants were the celebrant, deacon,
subdeacon, other clergy, the choir, a nun, six elderly gentlemen
in splendid scarlet robes, attendants, and a beadle. I'll have
more to say about the beadle directly.
The date & time:
9 August 2009, 11.15 am.
What was the name of the service?
How full was the building?
I assume the choir and crossing were full. Afterward, what seemed
like 200 to 300 people emerged from behind the nave screen.
There were only about 60 of us seated in the nave itself.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
At the outer gate, a chap in a robe was telling tourists that
the Abbey was closed. Most went away disappointed, but several
seemed not to understand. The large family group in front of
me remonstrated, and as they eventually passed inside, the gatekeeper
messaged on his police style walkie-talkie that four were "coming
up to pray." Something in his tone of voice said he didn't
believe them. I finally gained entrance along with some others
who managed to convince the gatekeeper that we were there to
attend the service. But as we walked up the aisle (the service
was about to start), a second robed person slammed the choir
gate shut in our faces without a word of warning or explanation,
raising a forbidding hand against us. Then a third robed person
waved us to the nave seating, again without a word, as if he
were waving motorists into parking spaces. Together these three
gentlemen managed to convey the least friendly welcome I have
ever received at a church service.
Was your pew comfortable?
My chair was comfortable and in the front row, though I could
see very little of the service at all from the nave. Most people
seated around me would have seen none. At least the excellent
sound system meant we could hear well.
How would you describe the pre-service
Under the circumstances, I'm afraid I failed to notice it.
What were the exact opening words of the
"In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the
What books did the congregation use during the
A clearly printed service sheet with everything we needed, including
a request in six languages not to shake hands at the peace lest
we transmit the swine flu. Most of us failed to notice this
warning beforehand; thus, we shook hands and so far have lived
to tell the tale.
What musical instruments
Organ. Music was provided by the City of London Chamber Choir,
as the Abbey choristers were on holiday.
Did anything distract
Most distracting was the rude behaviour of two more of the Abbey
staff. First, a gentleman in badly fitting morning dress paced
about, his shoes echoing on the stone floor. He twice crossed
our line of vision, executing a precarious high-kick over the
blue rope that surrounded the altar. But even worse, as the
choir were singing the post-communion anthem (Rossini's O
Salutaris Hostia, nicely done) which might have been the
emotional core of the mass, the beadle suddenly marched up to
a couple near me in the front row and demanded in a voice that
could be heard all around to see what they were hiding beneath
their service sheet. He then took the service sheet from them
to expose a small camera, and noisily demanded to see the photos
they had taken. If they had been taking photos, it was without
flash and unnoticed by me, their nearest neighbour. Moreover,
they were communicants and had played a full part in the service.
So what if they had taken a picture as well! The beadle's actions
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or
A stately modern catholic mass was taking place somewhere behind
the huge stone screen that separates the nave from the choir.
We could just occasionally glimpse something of it. I think
it would have been great to be there. But relegated to the nave,
I felt quite uninvolved – and terribly distracted by the
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 Canon Macey delivered a thoughtful and well argued
sermon, but I'm afraid I was distracted.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon
The bread of life – and the near-blasphemous use by Christ
of the words with their resonances of manna.
Which part of the service was like being in
The Rossini O Salutaris Hostia – until the beadle
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The various actions described of the guys in robes and morning
dress. I'm afraid it really seemed as though they thought worshippers
were a major nuisance.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I left fairly promptly.
How would you describe the after-service
As far as I know there was none – though there was a coffee
stall outside the west door doing a brisk trade in cappuccinos
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
3 If I could be sure of getting there in good enough
time to sit in the crossing, it might be different.
Did the service make you
feel glad to be a Christian?
No. I have on previous occasions been to Sunday eucharists at
the Abbey and found them truly uplifting. But this one was a
What one thing will you
remember about all this in seven days' time?
The unpleasantness of the staff.
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