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  1018: St Margaret's, Westminster, London

St Margaret's, Westminster, London

Mystery Worshipper: Purple Sparkler.
The church: St Margaret's, Westminster, London.
Denomination: Church of England.
The building: From the outside, St Margaret's is somewhat obscured by Westminster Abbey and, of course, the Houses of Parliament, as the church's style resembles that of its more famous neighbours. Despite sitting opposite a statue of Oliver Cromwell, St Margaret's does not adhere to the no-graven-images style of Christianity, as the interior is full of shiny accoutrements a-go-go: gold chandeliers, very prominent brass organ pipes, and gold-bedecked saints behind the altar. The church also features many beautiful stained-glass windows, some of which look like they might be modern but could also have been made from bits of windows destroyed in World War II, as I've seen elsewhere. The walls are covered with memorial plaques, some particularly cheerful ones complete with stone skulls.
The church community: St Margaret's is the unofficial parish church for the House of Commons, so it's not a parish in the traditional sense of the word. The area being what it is, the congregation was comprised mainly of politicians and the few people rich enough to live in the area – plus, of course, the odd tourist.
The neighbourhood: Slap-bang in the political heartland of London, next to Westminster Abbey, on a square filled with statues of political and historical dignitaries, opposite the Houses of Parliament. Nah, nothing particularly special about it.
The cast: The Rev. Peter Cowell preached. Also present were the Rev. Dr Paul Bradshaw, the Rev. Alan Boddy, and the Rev. Gary Swinton. The celebrant was (I think) the Rev. Robert Wright, Canon of Westminster, but there was nothing on the service sheet to say who was leading the service. At least the number of clergy present matched the number listed on St Margaret's website.

What was the name of the service?
Sung Eucharist.

How full was the building?
About two-thirds full.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
My "welcome"' was a slightly suspicious sounding "Are you here for the service?" I itched to give a suitably flippant answer before marching in. A sidesman did, however, smile cheerfully as he handed me my hymnbook and service sheets.

Was your pew comfortable?
Classic wood pews, with what looked like a carpet runner on each one. I didn't notice the runner until it fell off when I stood up to go to communion. Comfortable enough, but then I was brought up in a church with that type of pew, and one does get used to it.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Aside from two toddlers, of whom more later in this report, there was the usual quiet high Anglican whispered chat. No one seemed to be on the lookout for a mysterious stranger.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
We sang the hymn Lord enthroned in heavenly splendour. There was no greeting; people just stood up as if choreographed and started singing.

What books did the congregation use during the service?
There was a very posh, shiny eucharist book emblazoned with the crest of the Houses of Parliament (I thought this was Parliament's "unofficial" parish), with a stern printed notice not to take it away. A green paper service sheet was also available. The hymn book was the New English Hymnal. I have no idea what version of the Bible they were reading from – it was nothing I was familiar with.

What musical instruments were played?
Majestic (for which read slow) organ music all the way through.

Did anything distract you?
Ah yes. The toddlers. I had made the mistake of sitting behind not one, but two of the little darlings, with attendant parents. Whether the dears were overcome with boredom or the heady thrill of it being Mystery Worship Sunday I'm not sure, but they made so much noise that parts of the service (including the first five minutes of the eucharistic prayer) were completely inaudible – drowned out in a sea of "I want a BIKKIT," stamping, and other similar carryings-on. The only quiet people in the pews were their parents, who chose to ignore the sidesman who came over and suggested they take their cherubs to the vestry to calm them down. I began to feel angry with myself for not being more tolerant, but I couldn't help but wonder why the parents did nothing to try to control them.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
I'd describe it as "traditional at its most conservative." The choir was all male, and the only women I saw in the procession were servers. The hymns dragged, the congregation didn't join in the Gloria or Sanctus, and the prayers were in the older form, complete with thees, thous, remission instead of forgiveness, trespasses instead of sins, etc. No bells or smells, but everything else.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
6 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
6 – I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that the preacher was reading a prepared speech, this being the church of the Houses of Parliament, but he could have injected a bit of life into it. It was a scholarly sermon, though, and quite traditional.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Our faith sometimes wavers when things get tough, but Jesus is the Way and we should abide in him. The sermon wasn't exactly a challenge about the way we live our lives or how we deepen and explore our faith, so perhaps Tony Blair would have enjoyed it more than I.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The music (and I'm not a fan of all-male choirs) was absolutely gorgeous when I could hear it over those toddlers. I particularly enjoyed going up for communion amid singing from the choir stalls.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
I'm ashamed to say, the exchange of peace. I felt as though everyone who wished me peace also wanted to add "and vote for me." If I had been holding a baby, I'm sure it would have been picked up and kissed.

If intercessory prayers were said, what issues were raised?
The prayers skipped lightly over current issues of social justice, and absolutely nothing was said about the general election. They did, however, give thanks that the Archbishop of Canterbury had been invited to the Pope's investiture for the first time since the Reformation. But this wasn't so much a prayer for Christian unity as a self-congratulatory pat on the back at having been invited.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
It was very clear that the service was over and it was Time To Go. There was no coffee and so no chance to hang around. One of the sidesmen (the same one who'd tried to remove the toddlers) was doing a jolly finger-mime along to the organ music and gave me a nice friendly smile. I also got a handshake from the rector. But nobody asked if I was new or visiting. As with many central London churches, they seem to have given up on welcoming because they don't see why they should pay attention to folk who are just there for one visit. How would it hurt the regulars to keep an eye out for unfamiliar faces and approach them in friendship?

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
I quaffed a very nice drink on the tube on the way back up to north London. Not provided by the church, though.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
4 – This would be the perfect place to go if you just wanted to go to church for the sake of going, not giving much thought to your faith or the possibility of becoming involved. I did spot a few attractive young men, though, so the morning wasn't a total write-off. But it would be just my luck that they'd turn out to be Tory MPs.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
It made me very glad that I belong to a more lively, challenging and active congregation.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
I'll accentuate the positive and remember the beautiful choral music.
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