St Paul Covent Garden (Exterior)

St Paul's, Covent Garden, London


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Paul's
Location: Covent Garden, London
Date of visit: Wednesday, 23 March 2016, 7:30pm

The building

St Paul's was designed by the 17th century architect Inigo Jones, who was also responsible for the layout for Covent Garden square. This was the first new church to be built in London after the Reformation. The portico that faces the public is in fact the back of the church. Access is gained through a small garden that provides a relative amount of peace and quiet compared to the bustle of Covent Garden. Inside, there are rows of pews all facing a high altar. The walls of the church are covered with plaques dedicated to various members of the acting community.

The church

Known as the Actors' Church, it has long been associated with the theatrical community who work in London's West End. The church plays host to a number of concerts and even has its own chamber orchestra.

The neighborhood

Covent Garden is one of the busiest areas of London, home of many a street performer. It is visited by crowds of tourists on a daily basis. It was originally named because of a convent that existed there, though little trace of that remains today. The area is also the home of the Freemasons, with the central Masonic lodge just a few yards down the road.

The cast

No names were used at any time. The service was led by the choir, with the priest's role limited only to a few utterances amounting to little more than five or six sentences in the whole service.

What was the name of the service?


How full was the building?

Very sparse. The congregation came and went throughout the service, but at no point amounted to more than 30, which was only marginally bigger than the choir.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Not a word, not a smile, not a nod. I tried to make eye contact but the only creature that returned it was a cat that was casually strolling through the foyer.

Was your pew comfortable?

Hardly. These were great, old, dark wooden pews that were the very opposite of comfort. They also creaked a lot, so every time anyone shifted slightly to make themselves less uncomfortable, everyone in the church could hear.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Deathly. Hardly a word was spoken by anyone, with just a few hushed whispers amongst those who came in together. No one seemed to know anyone else and so we all sat in pockets of isolation toward the back of the church.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

I couldn't catch them. The priest seemed so concerned with sounding austere and impressive that he forgot to enunciate his words. Nor was he helped by the acoustics of the building. The first words I caught were "Our Father" followed by a long pause, then "Hail Mary" followed by a slightly shorter pause and then "We believe" which was also followed by a pause.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

There was a four page booklet that we were expected to pick up from a table just inside the church. The first page gave an outline of what to expect for the service. The next three pages contained a more detailed plan, with instructions for when to stand, sit or kneel.

What musical instruments were played?

None at all. All music was done a cappella by the choir, with no invitation for the congregation to participate.

Did anything distract you?

After the first nocturn, I was looking for distractions, I was so bored. The singing was beautiful, but like the priest's opening comments, all clarity was lost. I was reading the plaques that festooned the walls of the church and found that I was sat by those dedicated to Charlie Chaplin, Noel Coward and Terrence Rattigan. I also kept wondering what happened to the cat, hoping it might wander underneath the pews to come and rub around the feet of the congregation.

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

It was pure performance. The choir sang a large number of lengthy psalms, very slowly, which meant the service dragged out for two and a half hours. It was beautiful singing, but it was like looking in through a window. It wasn't worship the congregation could join in with; we were simply there to observe and appreciate the artistry of others. When it came to the lessons, I was looking forward to a relief from the singing and hearing some spoken words. Alas, this was not the case. Just before the first lesson, someone pulled out an harmonica and gave it a little toot, before tucking it back into his suit pocket and singing the lesson solo. As each psalm was concluded, a candle on the tenebrae hearse was extinguished and the lights were dimmed. Near the end of the service, all candles but one were finished and the lights turned out. The one candle left was hidden behind the altar, as the choir processed out and sang Allegri's Miserere in the darkness. At the end of this, the priest made a single, fairly loud bang (I think he hit a piece of wood with a book) and the sole candle was brought out again.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

No sermon.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The singing was exemplary; in particular the spine-tingling Miserere in the darkness, which was something quite unlike anything I've experienced in a church before.

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

Not a part of the service, but a sense that went through the whole thing. This was performance, not worship, and as each lesson was sung, one got the impression that all the singers were just trying to outdo one another. In particular, when they rolled their Rs, it was an exercise in sounding impressive.

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

Hard to say, it was so dark. I sat for a few moments but I couldn't see many other people and I doubt they could see me. I eventually wandered out of the church, dropped my MW card in a collection, and gave the priest a nod as I walked past (he didn't acknowledge my existence). Then people dispersed out into the night life and bright lights of London's West End.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

No coffee or snacks were on offer.

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

2 – A church where I cannot participate in the worship is not a church I would want to be associated with. It was beautiful to observe, but observation alone makes one feel a bit isolated.

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 Miserere, piercing the darkness with high notes from the soprano.

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