A church has stood on this spot since the late Saxon period. The current classic baroque-style edifice was built by Sir Christopher Wren after London's Great Fire of 1666. Interestingly, it was never finished by Wren, as it was Nicholas Hawksmoor who finished off the steeple in 1717. Inside, one finds many original fittings, both to St James and other Wren churches that have disappeared because of war or the expansion of secular development in the City of London. A painting, The Ascension, by the 19th century Scottish artist Andrew Geddes, occupies the space once taken by the east window, which was filled in to correct a structural flaw in the east wall. A mummy of a gentleman known only as Jimmy Garlick, discovered in the vaults in 1855, used to be kept in a cupboard in the vestry but has now been removed to the tower. Also in the tower are a ring of eight bells, the Diamond Jubilee Bells, that were rung from a barge in the Thames in honour of Her Majesty the Queen's Diamond Jubilee. Somewhat uniquely, St James was largely undamaged by World War II save for the clock (now restored) and a stained glass window the loss of which many consider to be a blessing in disguise. Construction of a new suite of parish rooms has been underway since 1969, delayed by legal wrangling over compensation by the City of London for the old parish hall and churchyard.
St James Church is used by 12 livery companies, including the Worshipful Company of Glass Sellers and the Worshipful Company of Vintners, among others. The 18th century composer of anthems, odes, and incidential music to four of Shakespeare's plays, William Boyce, was baptised here. There is a sung eucharist each Sunday plus evening prayer Monday through Thursday evenings.
The church is tucked away in the heart of the City of London. It is surrounded by mostly post-war buildings, with few residents within the metes and bounds of the historic parish.
The Revd Guy Treweek, rector and priest-in-charge of St James and its twinned parish of St Andrew-by-the-Wardrobe, wearing an alb and chasuble. He was assisted by an unnamed licensed reader, wearing alb with blue scarf, who also served as an acolyte.
What was the name of the service?Holy Communion
How full was the building?
Mostly empty, with about the same number of parishioners (20) that Charles Dickens observed in The Uncommercial Traveller although Dickens suspected that some of those might have been dead. The rector explained during the church announcements that construction and road closures for special events may have kept many parishioners away.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Not upon arrival. However, an impeccably dressed older gentleman with a dynamic voice, whose singing and recitation of the liturgy was top-notch, approached me afterward and welcomed me back. He remembered me, despite the fact that I had only been there once before (about 13 months ago). His warm and sincere welcome and pleasant conversation after church were very enjoyable.
Was your pew comfortable?
Typical oak pew with pillow kneelers that were rather small for purpose. Most of the congregants were older and not kneeling due to their age. In 1991 the counterweight of a construction crane fell through the south transept, reducing most of the pews to kindling. They were rebuilt in oak to match the choir stalls.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Generally reverential, if perhaps a little too quiet. A proper organ prelude would have been nice.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Welcome to St James Garlickhythe."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
St James uses the 1662 Book of Common Prayer with the modifications of 1928. All of the liturgy except the readings and hymns were in a nicely prepared service booklet. The three hymns were from Common Praise.
What musical instruments were played?
A stately organ played by Alderman Dr Andrew Parmley, the church's music director. The organ was installed in 1718 by Johan Knoppell and has been refurbished several times, most recently in 2007 by the London firm of Mander Organs. The organ case is topped by angels blowing trumpets and by a sea-shell (the symbol of St James). The choir, mostly female and wearing street clothing, was a visiting choir.
Did anything distract you?
The licensed reader-cum-acolyte nearly fell over after receiving the plate containing the offering. The congregation must have been rather generous either that or he spotted my Mystery Worship calling card.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
St James is a classic Anglican parish that stands quite steadfastly in the reformed tradition. There weren't many high church trappings, but it was far from evangelical.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – A solid sermon, although the rector seemed a little too reliant upon prepared text at times.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
It was about learning to listen and discern what God's gifts to us are. "It's not what you want that matters. It's what God wants that matters."
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The classic Prayer Book liturgy.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The rector's speed reading of the Great Thanksgiving, which was deserving of a speeding ticket from the liturgy police.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I was approached in my pew by the aforementioned older gentleman, who invited me to the back of the nave for coffee and, if I wished, wine.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Quite friendly and welcoming to newcomers, but the coffee was instant and served in a plastic cup. The wine is a nice touch, unless you're driving.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – I would want to visit some more of the London churches before committing to St James, but I don't think one could find many churches like St James. Personally, I would like the churchmanship to be a little higher without crossing into Anglo-Catholicism. With a mostly older congregation – I was the youngest by probably 35 years – I might also seek out a church with more in the pews around my age.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Without a doubt.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The genuine niceness of everyone. And the wine.