It dates from 1157, with chapels added in 1325 and a tower in 1670. The chapels were private, one belonging to Thomas More. The church was severely damaged during the Blitz of World War II, with the More Chapel suffering the least damage. It was reconstructed entirely on its original foundations and was reopened a bit at a time in the 1950s. It was reconsecrated in 1958 by the Bishop of London in the presence of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. The exterior, originally white, is now red brick. There is a statue of Thomas More in the churchyard, with More's face gilded and looking rather jaundiced. Inside, there is a remarkable collection of memorials (one of them to the novelist Henry James), put back together like jigsaw puzzles after being shattered in the bombing.
Chelsea Old Church serves what is now an extremely affluent neighborhood. The parish hall is available for private hire. The church has been a popular wedding venue ever since the days of King Henry VIII (although their website states that "we don't hold him up as a paragon"). They are also much sought out for baptisms, especially because of their children's service, which has earned a reputation for itself (they describe it as a "mini-mattins" with readings from the Lion Children's Bible and the sermon acted out instead of preached). Their adult services are traditional Prayer Book mattins, evensong and holy communion.
The church is on the Thames embankment, between the Albert Bridge and the Battersea Bridge. It is in the heart of the old Chelsea village, with Thomas Carlyle's house (National Trust) nearby.
The vicar, the Revd Canon David Reindorp TD.
What was the name of the service?Mattins.
How full was the building?
The church is said to seat four hundred people. There were twenty-one in the congregation, not counting the choir and the vicar, but the major road outside was closed for a mammoth bicycle race, and the vicar mentioned that it had affected attendance. The congregation were almost entirely middle-aged or older. I gather that there are a number of young families among the parishioners, but they would have attended the earlier children's service. Six of the twenty-one were men. Those in attendance, while respectable, were not conspicuously posh.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes. The vicar was standing outside talking when we approached. He asked if we were there for mattins, and welcomed us when we said we were. The man and woman handing out books and service leaflets at the door also welcomed us.
Was your pew comfortable?
Standard wooden pew, with embroidered kneelers. Not especially uncomfortable.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
A couple of people were praying on their knees, but most were sitting silently listening to the organ prelude. A few chatted quietly.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning. We sing hymn number six."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The 1662 Book of Common Prayer; Common Praise hymnal; lessons read from The Holy Bible, King James Version.
What musical instruments were played?
Organ. The present instrument replaced the one that was destroyed during the Blitz, but invitations to tender for a new instrument have been sent to a short list of contemporary organ builders.
Did anything distract you?
Taking notes is not conducive to worship, but that's unavoidable.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Since the church prides itself on using the 1662 Prayer Book, I expected stiff upper lip, but the vicar's style and incidental remarks were informal and jolly what you might expect from someone with 25 years as a military chaplain behind him.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – The vicar spoke from notes, but didn't read the sermon.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The sermon began and ended with references to the recent murder of a French Catholic priest by Islamic zealots, mentioned local boy Thomas More and the crucifixion, and deplored violence in the name of religion.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The four-person professional choir were very fine. They sang a Vaughn Williams introit, a Britten setting of the Jubilate, and an anthem by Lloyd. It was also a pleasure to hear a Prayer Book service of morning prayer (mostly see below). I grew up with that, but don't get it much anymore.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The vicar offered almost incessant stage direction: "We sit for..."; "On page..." Most of this seemed unnecessary. What wasn't covered by the Prayer Book rubrics could have been easily put in a brief addition to the service leaflet. Also, there were unpredictable and mildly irritating departures from Cranmer: substitutes for a couple of prayers, ex tempore prayer, and a few omissions. (If anything is to be omitted, how about one of the two Lord's Prayers?)
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
We immediately entered into a pleasant and extended conversation with the woman who was collecting the prayer books and hymnals, and after that we were approached by the vicar and talked with him until it was time for the 12.15 communion service. Both urged us to come back next time we're in London. All in all, we felt very welcome.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
If there was a coffee, it was after the ensuing communion service, which we didn't stay for.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
4 – My tastes have become higher since my boyhood, but this was an agreeable trip down Memory Lane.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, it did. As always, the Prayer Book language brings to mind those of generations past who worshipped with the same words.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
Probably Cranmer's Te Deum, which I'm pleased to find I still know by heart.