St Matthew's, Westminster, London

St Matthew's, Westminster, London


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Mystery Worshipper: Kettle
Church: St Matthew's
Location: Westminster, London
Date of visit: Sunday, 18 December 2005, 11:00am

The building

St Matthew's Westminster was consecrated in 1851. Built in the Gothic style, it seems unremarkable next to its close neighbour, Westminster Abbey. Almost completely destroyed by fire in 1977 (only the quire and Lady chapel were spared), it was rebuilt and reopened in 1984. Inside is quite colourful, with lots of little side chapels.

The church

There is a parish school and a weekly children's group called the Guild of St Nicholas. They were having a children's Christmas party after the service, which looked like more fun than the coffee! There are daily masses and other services intended to reach out to workers at Parliament and the Home Office as well as residents of the area. There is an alternative evening service called moot, which they describe as "a fresh expression of church."

The neighborhood

St Matthew's is near Westminster Abbey, Church House and the Houses of Parliament, just a short walk from the river.

The cast

Goodness! There were so many! At one stage it looked like more than the little congregation. The only ones I can cite by name, though, are the Rev. Philip Chester, celebrant, and Lay Canon Jim Rosenthal, preacher.

What was the name of the service?

Holy Eucharist

How full was the building?

Middling, but I'm told it is usually better attended. It's a very small chapel, with a small congregation to match, by the looks of it.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Several, all at once! In fact, two of the clergy practically came to blows over who would shake our hands first. We felt very welcomed.

Was your pew comfortable?

A chair, not a pew, but more of a pew-chair, if you see what I mean.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

"A time of silence," which it was.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Just a service sheet.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ, played well, at a very good tempo.

Did anything distract you?

There were ten statues of saints above the altar, all well and pretty, but I couldn't read who they were! Why ten? I spent ages trying to work out who they might be. Which apostles could they have left out? Were they apostles? I'm still puzzled. And I thought the wallpaper behind the altar looked a bit like something you'd expect to find in an Indian restaurant.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

Bells and smells. One of the smokiest services I've ever been to, practically gassed – and I'm asthmatic to boot! But everything was very reverent, and very aware of the presence of God. Of four hymns, two were Marian, not something I'm used to at all, although not something I object to, especially as it was Mary Sunday. The Angelus at the end did seem like overkill, though.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

11 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

5 – Canon Rosenthal is American, and I found his accent a distraction. He read his sermon off a sheet of paper, and I thought it was poorly organised on the whole.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Urm... not a lot, sadly. It being Mary Sunday, he talked a bit about the Blessed Mother, and said that we shouldn't relegate Joseph to the background. He also talked a bit about the American megachurches closing on Christmas day, and about Christmas shopping. He ended by asking repeatedly, "And where is Jesus?"

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

At the end of the service, two little children came and climbed into the rather magnificent nativity scene in front of the altar. Their enthusiastic curiosity was really lovely.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

The feeling of tightness in my chest as I was slowly gassed by the amount of incense being thrown around. The fires of hell can't be anywhere near as smoky ... argh!!!

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

We were directed to the after-service coffee but accidentally walked in on where the children's party was being held. Someone there redirected us to the adult coffee. Everyone was really friendly, and they made an effort to get to know our names and invite us to the alternative moot service.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

A big pot of beautifully brewed tea was just waiting for me. But the coffee was quite watery. Neither was fairly traded. Coffee and tea were served in tiny cups, and there were no biscuits on offer! But the company was lovely. Very friendly and welcoming.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

8 – It appeared to be a close community, and were I living in London, I'd at least try moot. Sadly my asthma doesn't react well to incense – but for that, I'd be happy to attend eucharist again.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

Yes. I was very aware of the presence of God. It was uplifting, and the singing was enthusiastic. It wasn't really my cup of tea stylewise, but I enjoyed it nonetheless!

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

Having so much Mary squashed into one service. I think that's my fill for the year!

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