Westminster Abbey is many things: a masterpiece of early English gothic architecture; a royal burial place; a kind of national pantheon, with monuments and tombs of the great the good and the self-important filling every available space, and together making the finest collection of memorial sculpture in Europe. The Abbey is a stage set for coronations and state events; a saint's shrine (Edward the Confessor's). It also functions a bit like a cathedral, with its own choir school and choristers, a chapter and, I hear it rumoured, a juicy financial endowment. Like a cathedral, there are several Sunday services. Its famous twin west towers may be one of the newest bits of the building (they were added in the 18th century) but they have instant recognition. As a brand, Westminster Abbey is a mighty global player.
I am not sure that Westminster Abbey has a community – except of the virtual sort. An ecclesiastical anomaly, it survived the dissolution of the abbeys as a royal peculiar (i.e. not answering to any bishop) and steers its own way. One of the best known ecclesiastical buildings anywhere, it is in summer months besieged by mass tourism. Indeed, it charges a hefty admission fee to visitors. I don't think I am the only Londoner who feels overwhelmed by the mass of visitors milling around and completely blocking the pavements round about. Its very popularity (and admission charge) seems a reason to pass by quickly, abandoning the site to the hospitality trade and the tour busses that constantly make reverential stops, On this day I heard a bus commentary remind customers that Princess Diana's funeral took place there in 1997 – seemingly the most interesting fact in its 900 year history.
The Abbey's neighbours are Parliament, the new Supreme Court, the offices of parliamentary lobbyists, the Treasury and the Church Commissioners.
The only member of the substantial altar party whose name I could discern was the Revd Michael Macey, minor canon, who gave the sermon. Unnamed participants were the celebrant, deacon, subdeacon, other clergy, the choir, a nun, six elderly gentlemen in splendid scarlet robes, attendants, and a beadle. I'll have more to say about the beadle directly.
What was the name of the service?Sung Eucharist
How full was the building?
I assume the choir and crossing were full. Afterward, what seemed like 200 to 300 people emerged from behind the nave screen. There were only about 60 of us seated in the nave itself.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
At the outer gate, a chap in a robe was telling tourists that the Abbey was closed. Most went away disappointed, but several seemed not to understand. The large family group in front of me remonstrated, and as they eventually passed inside, the gatekeeper messaged on his police style walkie-talkie that four were "coming up to pray." Something in his tone of voice said he didn't believe them. I finally gained entrance along with some others who managed to convince the gatekeeper that we were there to attend the service. But as we walked up the aisle (the service was about to start), a second robed person slammed the choir gate shut in our faces without a word of warning or explanation, raising a forbidding hand against us. Then a third robed person waved us to the nave seating, again without a word, as if he were waving motorists into parking spaces. Together these three gentlemen managed to convey the least friendly welcome I have ever received at a church service.
Was your pew comfortable?
My chair was comfortable and in the front row, though I could see very little of the service at all from the nave. Most people seated around me would have seen none. At least the excellent sound system meant we could hear well.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Under the circumstances, I'm afraid I failed to notice it.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
A clearly printed service sheet with everything we needed, including a request in six languages not to shake hands at the peace lest we transmit the swine flu. Most of us failed to notice this warning beforehand; thus, we shook hands and so far have lived to tell the tale.
What musical instruments were played?
Organ. Music was provided by the City of London Chamber Choir, as the Abbey choristers were on holiday.
Did anything distract you?
Most distracting was the rude behaviour of two more of the Abbey staff. First, a gentleman in badly fitting morning dress paced about, his shoes echoing on the stone floor. He twice crossed our line of vision, executing a precarious high-kick over the blue rope that surrounded the altar. But even worse, as the choir were singing the post-communion anthem (Rossini's O Salutaris Hostia, nicely done) which might have been the emotional core of the mass, the beadle suddenly marched up to a couple near me in the front row and demanded in a voice that could be heard all around to see what they were hiding beneath their service sheet. He then took the service sheet from them to expose a small camera, and noisily demanded to see the photos they had taken. If they had been taking photos, it was without flash and unnoticed by me, their nearest neighbour. Moreover, they were communicants and had played a full part in the service. So what if they had taken a picture as well! The beadle's actions were astonishing.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
A stately modern catholic mass was taking place somewhere behind the huge stone screen that separates the nave from the choir. We could just occasionally glimpse something of it. I think it would have been great to be there. But relegated to the nave, I felt quite uninvolved – and terribly distracted by the staff.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – Canon Macey delivered a thoughtful and well argued sermon, but I'm afraid I was distracted.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The bread of life – and the near-blasphemous use by Christ of the words with their resonances of manna.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The Rossini O Salutaris Hostia – until the beadle ruined it.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The various actions described of the guys in robes and morning dress. I'm afraid it really seemed as though they thought worshippers were a major nuisance.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I left fairly promptly.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
As far as I know there was none – though there was a coffee stall outside the west door doing a brisk trade in cappuccinos for tourists.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
3 – If I could be sure of getting there in good enough time to sit in the crossing, it might be different.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
No. I have on previous occasions been to Sunday eucharists at the Abbey and found them truly uplifting. But this one was a shocking disappointment.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The unpleasantness of the staff.