St Paul’s Bow Common, Tower Hamlets, London


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Paul’s Bow Common
Location: Tower Hamlets, London
Date of visit: Sunday, 20 February 2022, 10:00am

The building

Built in 1958 to replace a church bombed out in WWII, the new church, designed by Robert Maguire and Keith Murray, whose partnership stood for the best in British architectural practice in the mid to late 20th century, is almost square, centrally planned around an altar treated as a tabernacle under a baldaccino, with a walkway around all four sides. The central tabernacle is surrounded on three sides by pews, a very 1960s feature, for this was the decade that also brought us theatre-in-the-round. Everything is in a spare modernist style, going on minimalism, and the church was widely influential when first opened as something of a manifesto building for the Liturgical Movement in the Church of England. There is a lofty glazed lantern over the central altar, and on a sunny day the church must be dramatic and bright. On a dull day such as that on which your Mystery Worshipper visited, the purple bricks and concrete are a little drab on the outside, not assisted by the fact that the church sits on a busy but unprepossessing road intersection. But inside there was drama even on this dull Sunday, assisted by the fact that the electrics were on the blink so we sat in natural light pouring in from the central lantern above. I much prefer this to the electric sort of light and it was more than bright enough. Above all, it focussed things on the central altar below the lantern – exactly as intended. One enters under a bold frieze designed by the legendary lettercutter Ralph Bayer: ‘This is none other than the house of God. This is the gate of heaven’ (Genesis 28:17).

The church

The church is a lively local worshipping community and there is a popular Church of England infant school nearby. The worshipping community reflects the multicultural mix of the wider area. The motto on their website is ‘Loving, Inclusive, Progressive.’

The neighborhood

A working class area that has been reinvented – and much of it rebuilt – twice since it was badly damaged by bombing in WWII. St Paul’s Church dates from the first rebuilding. Bow Common is not a beautiful part of town in spite of millions of regeneration money being spent in the area over the last decade. Much of the housing is in flats for rent and it is a very multicultural area. Very visible less than a mile down the road are the tall office towers of Canary Wharf, London’s second financial district. The contrast and discontinuity are uncomfortable.

The cast

The vicar, with no altar party to assist her (see below).

What was the name of the service?

Holy Communion.

How full was the building?

People trickled in after I arrived in the nick of time. Eventually there were 40 people in person, of which 25 (both adults and children) left for the Sunday school for the central part of the service. The majority of people sat in the pews that faced full-on, not in the side blocks. As we were still under pandemic measures, the service was also Zoomed and occasionally there were glimpses on the projector screen of the remote worshippers at home.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

The welcomer on duty gave us the three handouts and the hymn book. We were welcomed again by a member of the congregation who promptly recognised us as non-regulars. Then the vested vicar spotted us too as newcomers and came across to add her personal welcome just before things began. Such a warm and pro-active welcome is appreciated.

Was your pew comfortable?

An elegant wooden pew, reassuringly firm and non-rickety, unlike most church chairs. It suited my posture well.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Quite lively, with about twenty children of various ages, various people setting things up, and the heavy breathing of the warm air heating system.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

The vicar apologised that the lights were mostly off due to works to the electrics. This meant the space was naturally lit from the large lantern above the central altar, which was rather better than electric light to my way of thinking. She then started for real: ‘In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.’

What books did the congregation use during the service?

We had a hymn book, service booklet, newsletter, and a print-out of the readings of the day. This would have meant quite a bit of juggling – but not to worry, since the words were all projected onto a screen as well. As a newcomer a little unsure of things, I opted for the screen and skipped the juggling. The fact that we had handouts as well suggested that the scrolling version on the screen was a recent innovation for the pandemic to enable online people to keep up – but that’s purely a guess. I used to balk at things projected onto a screen because it takes your eyes away from the liturgy. But during Covid we have of necessity become more used to Zoom-enabling measures, and perhaps it’s an evolution that will not be wholly reversed when the pandemic has abated. Our natural evolution has suddenly speeded up for two years, and in so many ways.

What musical instruments were played?

An iPad to accompany the hymns and a huge variety of percussion instruments, many home-made (see below).

Did anything distract you?

The church is filled with mosaics. These are being restored, so white plastic protection is in place. I found myself wondering whether the plastic sheets were to hide the restoration, or the mosaics in their un-repaired state. Perhaps because of works, the church was cluttered with stored furniture, bicycles, play equipment. In a minimalist interior like St Paul’s, clutter such as this is noticeable.

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

A modern catholic mass of the sort this church was specifically designed for, and for which it remains well suited. The vicar could have used a server to assist her so that she didn’t have to fire up her own thurible as well as cense the altar and congregation, carry her own gospel book, service notes, sermon and all. The hymns were a mix of traditional and modern worship, including ‘Shine Jesus Shine’, which is among my personal least favourites. However, we had all been issued an amazing range of tambourines, rattles and other percussion instruments from the huge stash brought in by the Sunday School, and we used them with reasonable enthusiasm. At communion nobody approached the altar; rather, the vicar came round to us in the pews, presumably to achieve social distancing during the pandemic, and communion was received in one kind only.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

9 minutes.

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

6 — The vicar was refreshingly straightforward and avoided theological jargon.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

She preached on the gospel of the day (Luke 8:22-25) when the disciples were frightened of drowning in a storm. This had special resonance, since just 48 hours earlier London had been in the grip of a violent storm with gusts up 100mph. This particular church (though not others) had escaped damage. She riffed on the response of Jesus to his doubting disciples: ‘Where is your faith?’ which she left as a poignant question.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The Sunday school were invited on their return to tell us what they had done after they left us for their lesson. When asked, some of the children bashfully declined to speak, so it looked for a moment as though this wasn’t going to work out. Then one of them broke the ice and told us about Moses hidden in a basket by the river, and suddenly several wanted to pile in and tell us the story. Nobody likes to go first. We gave them a round of applause.

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

Not quite hellish, but the pumped warm air heating system roared throughout the mass. I wondered whether we would have become uncomfortably cold if it had been run before mass then turned off at the start. Its insistent noise was disconcerting and far from restful. And I’m afraid the tambourines and rattles didn’t make me like ‘Shine Jesus Shine’ any better, but they did break the ice, and by the end of the third chorus they had successfully brought us together as a group. I wondered whether the song should have been the first hymn rather than the last, as we struggled a little with a wobbly iPad during the other hymns.

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

No chance to look lost. Several people came and chatted, and there was a lot of conviviality in the church after mass. The warm welcome at St Paul’s is palpable.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

We didn’t notice any coffee or other refreshments (in common with many churches, this may have been suspended as a pandemic hygiene precaution). But post service coffee as such is not important to me; it’s whether or not there is friendly chatter and a sense of a worshipping community – and that doesn’t require caffeine to fuel.

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

7 — I made a mental note to return in a year after the pandemic is hopefully behind us and worship more like we are used to it.

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


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

The altar dramatically lit from above under its central lantern.

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