It's one of the most easily missed churches one could hope to find and one is unlikely to stumble across it by accident. Tucked down a back street behind Barbican Underground station, it is even sunk below street level. Inside, the church's ancient age was evident, but without looking tired, in spite of the fact that bits of it have been destroyed and rebuilt ever since the 12th century. The building is frequently used as a filming location.
Also known as St Bartholomew the Great, the church lays claim to being the oldest in London. It serves as the parish church of a great number of London's livery companies, including the Worshipful Company of Butchers and some newer ones including the Worshipful Company of Information Technologists. In recent years, the church has had the more dubious honour of being the first parish church to charge an admission fee, making it more like some cathedrals.
The church is in a business district, with very little housing in the nearby area. The largest centre of commerce in the parish is Smithfield market, the main meat market of the city. The area is also home to St Bartholomew's Hospital, which was founded at the same time as the church by a monk named Rahere.
Nobody really led and nobody gave their names. The service just sort of happened. Most was sung by the choir, with a few readings by anonymous people.
What was the name of the service?Mattins (Tenebrae) of Holy Saturday.
How full was the building?
In spite of being quite cavernous, there was limited seating. So the 100 or so people present made it feel rather full.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
I was greeted with a hushed "Good evening" and handed a small booklet.
Was your pew comfortable?
If ever a chair was designed to replicate the discomfort of a hard pew, then I was sat on it. It was bare, hard wood. But every chair had a kneeling cushion in front of it, which were quite nice.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Deeply hushed. The church was cloaked in darkness, with only a few lights at the end where the choir were and a lit hearse at the other end, next to the high altar. A few whispers were audible, but at times all stopped, creating a most uncommon stillness. Though there was no incense being swung, it had clearly been used earlier in the day, as the odour was still quite pungent in the atmosphere.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
The prayer before the Divine Office: "Aperi, Domine, os meum ad benedicendum nomen sanctum tuum" (O Lord, open my mouth, that I may bless your holy name).
What books did the congregation use during the service?
We just had a booklet containing most of the order of service. It was split into two columns: Latin on the left, English on the right. Though I suspect I had a slightly older version than most had, as the text I had on the final page was substantially shorter than everyone else's.
What musical instruments were played?
No instruments were played. The choir were unaccompanied, though the pipes of the organ loomed over them in the darkness like a brooding beast from a horror story.
Did anything distract you?
With the unusual layout of the church, we were facing those on the other side of the nave, and I dare say there were a fair few attractive young ladies sat opposite. Additionally, at one point during the service someone decided it would be a good idea to open a bottle of fizzy drink; the acoustics being as they are, the hiss was heard throughout the church, knifing its way through the meditative quiet.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Imagine you're planning to invent a time machine and head back to a church service before anyone had heard of the Reformation. No need; just head to Great St Bart's. One definitely has to do a double take and check that this is an Anglican church, and that one hadn't accidentally crossed the Tiber upon entering the building. Article XXIV of the Church of England's 39 articles (that use of a language not understandable to the people is repugnant) is roundly ignored here. The prayers were said in fluent, speedy Latin, and the singing was in the same tongue as well. It was a blessed relief when some readings were given in English. The choir and the priest who extinguished the candles on the Tenebrae hearse were robed all in black. The only colour was worn by two elderly priests who wore red velvet peaked hoods, which made them look rather sinister, possibly due to their resemblance of Rodrigo Borgia in the video game Assassins Creed II. Only the lights on the hearse were extinguished, so the levels of gloom remained constant throughout the service and we were never plunged into pitch black. When the Christ candle was hidden behind the altar, the whole church started banging on anything wooden to summon it back.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The singing was of the highest quality, and the basses in particular let their voices resonate throughout the church, like rolling thunder.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The fact that most of the service was in Latin. It's simply unnecessary and only serves to alienate people from hearing the message that is either spoken or sung.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
People wandered out of the church, not in silence, but certainly in quiet. I heard several arrangements being made to visit nearby pubs amongst small groups of people who had come together, but no one spoke to me, so I slunk off down a back alley and headed for home.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There were no formal after-service drinks, though as indicated above, some others did partake of a few informal beverages afterwards.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
3 – Though it was haunting, beautiful, and its ancient tradition was an open rebellion to the modern world, I couldn't cope with the excessive Latin on a weekly basis.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
I'm still pondering this one.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The amazing acoustics.