Mystery Worshipper: Carol
Church: St Botolph Without Aldgate
Location: City of London
Date of visit: Monday, 16 December 2013, 6:00pm
The current brick and stone building was completed in 1744. It sits on the site of a Saxon church that was enlarged in the 15th century and lasted until it was replaced by this building. The church has a prominent bell tower, and on the inside it is graciously elaborate. It was hit by a bomb during the last and worst night of the Blitz in the Second World War, but the device failed to explode, so the damage was isolated and it left a great hole in the roof! A fire in the 1960s, however, required some restoration work, which has been very cleverly done so as not to distract from the history of the place.
Thy are demonstrably inclusive and active, with both weekday and Sunday services. They also have close links with the Sir John Cass Foundation Primary School, Sir John having been a significant benefactor to the parish in the 17th century, and the school played a big part in this service.
This was one of four churches dedicated to St Botolph (the English patron saint of travellers) near gates in the old wall around the City of London. It has always been close to the Tower of London and today it sits in the shadow of the iconic 30 St Mary Axe Building, better known as the Gherkin (see photo above), so it's a classic London mix of ancient and modern. This is the territory of the notorious serial killer Jack the Ripper, just west of Whitechapel. Today St Botolph's is surrounded by big financial and corporate offices and residential areas that are increasingly Muslim, but it is still a vibrant and viable City church. The area is very central and well served by all forms of public transport.
The Revd Prebendary Nick Mercer, Vicar General for the London College of Bishops, presided and preached. The Sir John Cass Foundation Primary School contributed to the service in several ways the school choir were prominent and the headteacher and a pupil read lessons.
What was the name of the service?The Portsoken Ward Club Carol Service. This is the Portsoken Ward church, and this was the annual carol service for the Portsoken Ward Club. This is one of those things that Londoners intuitively understand but is hard to explain.
How full was the building?
Well, it started off full on the ground floor (although the galleries were empty). I counted about 100 people. But after the first hymn there was a great exodus of a group who did not seem to have been speaking English. This reduced the congregation by about two or three entire pews, leaving a great empty section in the north aisle.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes. There was a friendly lady handing out orders of service. We offered to share, as they were in short supply.
Was your pew comfortable?
Yes, but it was a sit-stand-sit-stand service so you never had time to get stiff. The main thing for the time of year is that the temperature was good, neither too hot nor too cold.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Festive. There was wine and tea and sandwiches for the club. We were treated very well.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Once in Royal David's City ..." the opening verse of which was sung by four young lads in school uniform. After that hymn, the presiding priest opened the service with a great "Welcome!"
What books did the congregation use during the service?
There was a printed order of service that contained all the hymns and readings.
What musical instruments were played?
Organ, for most of it. A CD player was deployed to accompany the choir for "O Holy Night."
Did anything distract you?
Two things. The aforementioned exodus of tourists was a momentary distraction. Quite a number of people had brought their wine glasses into the pews, and it was quite entertaining to watch them try to take a surreptitious sip.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was an easygoing carol service. There was some applause but it wasn't about being clappy, it was for the children; it was just really relaxed and comfortable. It was an abbreviated version of the classic Nine Lessons and Carols: five lessons (one of which was a children's story with participation from five pupils) and five carols (one of which was the choir piece).
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – Prebendary Nick Mercer had a very clear speaking voice. He was relaxed, and humble and gracious, and I just really liked him. He started with giving thanks to various people involved in the service, not least the school, and then he extended an invitation to all to stay for mulled wine and mince pies after the service. He gets credit for keeping it down to seven minutes in the context of a child-friendly service. He also gets credit for being clear, friendly and funny. It was well pitched for the audience.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The gospel reading, a classic stalwart of such services: The Word made flesh. (John 1: 1-14). He talked about the "God-like" figures in modern mythology such as Aslan, Gandalf, etc, and how our affection for some kind of Hollywood blockbuster hero reflects our longing for God. But this makes it sound too cheap there were quotes from St Augustine and John Betjeman too.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The choir were sweet. There were about two dozen boys and girls, all in their red school uniforms, and they were a real testament to the ethnic diversity of central London. They were a happy vision of hope.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Nothing really horrible. One mobile phone went off, but that is almost normal. There was nothing profound, but it was a pleasant hour.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
There was no chance of being lost, as the refreshments were served right there at the back of the church. The bells were ringing and it was all very festive and jolly.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
More wine and mince pies and some sandwiches left over from before the service. Juice for the children. It was generously plentiful.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 – It was enjoyable. Inclusive, happy, but not clappy. But I would have to see it on a Sunday before committing.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, easily, but if a well executed Christmas carol service doesn't, you are probably a lost sheep.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The children singing their hearts out in their school uniforms.