Mystery Worshipper: Cool Dude
Church: St George’s
Location: Paris, France
Date of visit: Sunday, 2 October 2022, 10:30am
The entrance to the church is beneath a nondescript block of apartments. At ground floor level there is a meeting space, church office and entrance lobby. The worship space is in a basement, one floor below street level, down dark brown brick steps which are slightly suggestive of the entrance to a nightclub. Once achieved, the basement chapel is welcoming in spite of its dark brown brick, and the sanctuary is lit by a very 1980s cluster of large downlighters, like a cubist sculpture. The chapel is wider than it is deep and achieves a sense of reverence, with a long curved wall, again in brown brick, embracing the altar. A plaque at the back commemorates the construction of the new church, presumably on the site of the old.
St George’s is an outpost of the Anglican church in the French capital. It is one of two such churches in the centre of Paris, and there are others in the near suburbs. It is part of the Anglican Diocese of Europe, which seems to cater well for anglophones in the Paris region. The other central congregation, St Michael’s, seems to have the branding style of a well known London evangelical church – it is known as SMP, and branding using initials only seems to be a thing for that type of Anglicanism. I was instinctively drawn to St George’s instead, whose website feels a whole lot less pushy, and whose worship is middle of the road, going on gently liturgical.
This part of Paris – a couple of blocks off Etoile and almost in the shadow of the Arc de Triomphe – is a seriously expensive and prestigious location to live, work or worship. But it is also strangely anonymous and lacking in character. It was a pleasure to find the signs of spirituality and community lurking in such a banal and unhallowed street.
The chaplain preached and baptised, the assistant chaplain celebrated, a small altar party managed in a very cramped space, and a choir and organist in one corner led musically.
What was the name of the service?Solemn Eucharist.
How full was the building?
About 50 of us, with some sitting on seats against the rear walls as though slightly tentative about joining in (although they did). This pretty much filled the space.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
A duty welcomer passed us the paperwork, but was preoccupied in chatting to someone else while she did, so didn't manage to fit in a ‘hello’ or even bonjour.
Was your pew comfortable?
The pew was a plywood chair and very comfortable for me. However, the kneelers extending from each of the chairs in front were a major trip hazard and left little room for leaving or entering the row for communion. Since hardly anybody knelt, they seemed redundant and contributed to the general sense that the basement church, as rebuilt, was just too cramped.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
A little quiet chat, but mostly prayerful.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
‘Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones’ was the hymn, followed by the spoken, ‘In the name of the Father...’
What books did the congregation use during the service?
A service sheet, an order of service for the baptism, and a parish diary. The order of service had got badly mangled in reproduction and when the chaplain directed us to the top of page 2, the words he was reading were on my page 4. By the time I had caught up with him, there was another glitch in the layout and I was again lost, so I gave up and instead enjoyed looking at the baby, held by a very proud father. My own baptismal vows remained unrenewed.
What musical instruments were played?
The organ in the corner, a 19th century instrument by the sound of it.
Did anything distract you?
In front of me was another wide staircase – like everything here, in dark brown brick – that curved intriguingly up behind the altar. It was closed off, not with a decorous rope but by a plastic chain on which hung a scarlet road hazard sign forbidding entry, the sort of sign that traffic police put around sinkholes. In a distracted moment, I wondered what horrible fate might befall those who took that way... it presumably wasn’t a stairway to heaven.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Not as liturgical as I expected from the word ‘solemn’ in the billing, perhaps because of the baptism that was part of the service. There is nothing like a perfectly well-behaved baby of sunny disposition to snap one out of too much solemnity. But loads of incense was burned and the smoke hung in the beam of the cubist downlighters over the altar just as it does over the DJ in a nightclub. There really wasn’t enough space around the altar for much solemnity or carry-on, but clergy, bapstismal party and servers managed purposefully with what little space they had. A few sentences were in French, but the service was basically English language.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
6 — While the chaplain spoke without notes, he didn’t come across as entirely comfortable with doing so, at one point forgetting the name of an an Archangel – a bloop he covered well by asking the congregation, as though it was an engagement device to make sure we were all still listening.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
It was the feast of St Michael and All Angels, so he spoke about angels, and the texts of the day provided some slight help in that direction. Personally, I have always struggled (not wrestled!) with angels. Their fleetingness on top of their intangible nature is one jump too far for me, so I spent the sermon feeling slightly grumpy that I was expected to take them for a form of reality. Sometimes one’s personal feelings over-determine what is actually said in a sermon.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
I attended with a Roman Catholic friend whose first language is not English and who, for the first time in his life, received communion in both kinds. Sadly, that welcome is not yet reciprocated, at any rate officially, when I visit Roman Catholic churches. It was a lovely moment of reconciliation.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Not hellish, but the dark brown brick steps down from street level to the chapel are steep, difficult to see, curved, and not too friendly for anyone less than confident on their feet. The lady in front of me was a couple of notches less able than I to manage these without anxiety. It made for a disconcerting arrival.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Coffee and wine was offered (I think upstairs), though the welcome was not repeated on the threshold and it wasn’t clear where to go, so we made our way into the Parisian streets. I think most people here are regulars and know each other, so are not especially looking out for newcomers. During the notices, the chaplain also offered a parish chicken lunch, which he said with some pride he had himself cooked. This sounded delicious, but alas, we had intentions for lunch already.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
I can’t say, see above.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 — I liked the service, in spite of the cramped space, and especially the baptism. I may well give it another go when I’m next in Paris.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. A small piece of home from home for me, and a welcome break from the thoroughly Parisian time we were otherwise enjoying.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
My companion telling me it was the first time he had taken communion in both kinds.