This is a very special church. Located right in the centre of the Hampton Court Palace, the chapel is decorated in extraordinary splendour, most especially the incredibly elaborate timber-and-plaster ceiling. Seating is half-collegiate, half pews, with a first-floor gallery for attendees from the Royal Household.
While this is a Royal Peculiar, it is also a parish church, serving the small town of Hampton Court. The Gentlemen and Choristers of the Chapel Royal sing every Sunday.
For fear of repetition: it is, quite literally, at the centre of one of Britain's most important royal palaces. That is about as unusual as it gets, in my book.
The chaplain and deputy priest-in-ordinary presided, accompanied by the assistant chaplain as subdeacon, and a visiting priest as deacon and preacher. These were accompanied by a vested verger and several sidesmen, and were accompanied by the voices of the Gentlemen and Choristers of the Chapel Royal.
What was the name of the service?Festal Eucharist in Commemoration of King Charles the Martyr.
How full was the building?
Around three-quarters full; a rough estimate of 50 to 60 in attendance.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes. A sidesman in full morning dress and rejoicing in a splendid handlebar moustache welcomed me and directed me to the orders of service.
Was your pew comfortable?
The actual pew was comfortable, surprisingly for such an ancient building, though there was little space for someone of my height to kneel comfortably.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Due to an especially awful rail replacement bus trip from central London to the palace, I missed the pre-service hubbub.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
‘Our Father which art in heaven,’ etc.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
None, though the order of service was taken directly from the 1637 Scottish Book of Common Prayer, as instituted during Blessed Charles' reign.
What musical instruments were played?
The organ, accompanying the outstanding voices of the Gentlemen and Choristers of the Chapel Royal.
Did anything distract you?
I don't know if ‘distract’ is the right word, but I was captivated by the beauty of the eucharistic vestments: a rich, luxurious, (fittingly) blood-red velvet, surmounted by extraordinarily elaborate gold embroidery.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Extremely traditional high church – so no birettas or Sanctus bells, but very traditional language, lots of silverware on the altar (but only two candles), and LOTS of incense.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 — A very thoughtful and learned speaker, with a deep understanding of his subject material, which came across wonderfully in his thoughts.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
On the feast of St Charles, King and Martyr, it is only appropriate that the subject of the sermon was the defence of the Anglican episcopate, and the especial holiness of martyrdom. A robust and appropriately magisterial topic for this building, this service, and this feast.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The singing was utterly transcendent; the beauty of the chapel is such that it defies all description, and the majesty, pomp and glory of the liturgy that so typifies this old Anglicanism brought me great joy.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
There were a few brief moments of microphone failure during the Liturgy of the Sacrament, but nothing so severe as to distract from proceedings. My main quarrel of the day was the bus driver making two wrong turns and depriving me of my full time at this wonderful service.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
A lady told me that photos were forbidden in the chapel – though, with leave from the chaplain, I was able to take a few more. Especially kind given that another shipmate was meant to be attending with me today but couldn't make it.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
No after-service refreshments, unfortunately. A shame: given that one steps out of the chapel back into the Tudor surrounds of the palace, I rather expected to be handed a flagon of mead.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
10 — This was the best church service I have attended in a long while. A wonderful church, a deeply spiritual liturgy commemorating a uniquely Anglican martyr, and voices that seemingly elevated the whole building to the gates of St Peter. If you are ever visiting Hampton Court Palace, please do schedule it to coincide with a service at the Chapel Royal. You won't regret it – or forget 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 whole chapel singing the National Anthem with heart and voice.