St Giles Cripplegate, Barbican, London


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Giles Cripplegate
Location: Barbican, London
Date of visit: Wednesday, 31 March 2021, 8:00pm

The building

St Giles Cripplegate was founded in Saxon times, but rebuilt wholesale at least twice. It is named after one of the entry gates in the medieval walls of London known as the Cripplegate, a name the origins of which are unclear but which probably have nothing to do with physical disability. Puritan leader in the English Civil War Oliver Cromwell married in the church in 1620, whilst John Milton was buried here in 1674. The church was bombed in World War II. However, it was hit by incendiary bombs rather than high explosives and therefore the walls and tower stood as a gutted ruin. It was eventually subject to a very thorough stabilisation and restoration by architects Seeley and Paget. Today it is the parish church of the Barbican, a celebrated high-density residential complex of around 2,000 flats, maisonettes and houses within the City of London. The late Gothic architecture of the church makes a startling contrast to the 1970s brutalist housing all around it. It looks a little like a surreal ‘found object’ dropped into place as though from a helicopter.

The church

Many Barbicanites work in the adjacent financial services district and the area is notably quieter at weekends, when many residents head for their country bolt-holes. But St Giles has a flourishing parish in spite of that, with morning prayer Monday to Thursday as well as Sunday services.

The neighborhood

The Barbican owes its presence to wartime bombing that devastated the whole area. The enclave is also popular with architects and designers who appreciate its gutsy brutalist concrete and brick appearance. Always intended to be luxury housing, the flats here go for prices as sky-high as are some of the flats themselves; the three tall towers of flats rise 38 storeys.

The cast

Nobody was identified, but in line with the ecumenical nature of this event the office was led by leaders and members of Jewin Welsh Presbyterian Chapel; St Joseph's Roman Catholic Church, Bunhill Row; Wesley's Chapel; and Leysian Mission; as well as St Giles itself.

What was the name of the service?

Ecumenical Tenebrae. Tenebrae was an Easter staple in the Roman Catholic church until the reforms of Vatican II; since then it has become a rarity.

How full was the building?

There were about 50 of us sitting in the nave.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

I did not see a welcomer, but there was a hand sanitising station and a table with orders of service for the office.

Was your pew comfortable?

The pews were modern and comfortable. They had been turned so that they faced each other across the nave, collegiate style, instead of facing the altar as shown on the parish website as their usual arrangement.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Low lights, no music, a hushed and reverent quiet as we assembled minutes after sundown at the end of a day of glorious spring weather. A large benediction stand of candles lit the centre of the space in the nave.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

‘”Tenebrae” is the Latin word for “darkness” or “shadows”.’ There was then a description of the office and its evolution.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The service sheet for Tenebrae, which had everything set out clearly. The service sheet also included details of the Easter services at each of the four churches and a description of the ecumenical partnership.

What musical instruments were played?

None. One or two of the elements were chanted a cappella, otherwise everything was read by a variety of participants.

Did anything distract you?

Somebody present had not silenced their phone. Grrrrrr!

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

This was an ecumenical event, one example of the occasional worship that the four churches hold together. Those taking part were church leaders and members of the four participating churches. The psalms, antiphons, prayers and lamentations selected for this service were a mixture of modern and traditional, and there were some modern texts, for example an extract from Catherine Bird's 'The Divine Heart of Darkness'. This was a short Tenebrae, so for example we didn’t have all of the customary reading from the Lamentations of Jeremiah, and only a small number of the psalms for matins and lauds – traditionally the core of Tenebrae – were included. Right at the end, in darkness we made a good noise, the strepitus, to symbolise the earthquake that announced the Resurrection. Some had brought rattles and pans to hammer; I drummed my knuckles on the pew, which made a good sound, the more effective for following a service of quiet and darkness.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

There was none.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The quiet contemplative atmosphere and deepening darkness as dusk gave way to night skies outside and the candles were slowly extinguished.

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

Nothing was remotely hellish, but there was an anxious few seconds when it looked as thought the person extinguishing the candles might not be able to reach the top candle. But he did.

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

We all departed in silence, as is the custom after this service. In this time of plague, when socialising is with family groups only, we have become used to leaving church in silence and not lingering for chit chat.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There was none (anyway. who needs caffeine at 9.00 in the evening?).

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

8 — This was a once a year service, possibly a one-off for the four ecumenical partners (I am not clear about that), but I like ecumenical events, so will look out for more.

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 darkness is not a symbol of death, but more a reminder of the utter presence of God...' – from Catherine Bird's ‘The Divine Heart of Darkness.’

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