St Giles Cripplegate London

St Giles Cripplegate, Barbican, London


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Giles Cripplegate
Location: Barbican, London
Date of visit: Sunday, 26 June 2022, 10:00am

The building

St Giles Cripplegate is more correctly St Giles without Cripplegate, and was immediately sited outside the medieval gate to London. The church has a long history dating back to at least 1090, but was reconstructed after being devastated by fire in the reign of Henry VIII. The building includes a sturdy stone and brick tower, and makes a nice contrast to the concrete of the modern Barbican flats which surround it. The interior is lofty and spacious, with a curious artwork behind the altar that looks like a decorated screen from a Parisian salon. Among the many significant people who have played a part in the church’s history is the English poet and political philosopher John Milton, who is buried beneath the church floor. St Giles was firebombed in the German blitzkrieg of World War II, leaving only the walls and nave arcade standing. The church was re-roofed and repaired by the prolific church repairers the architects Seeley and Paget, who lived nearby.

The church

I assume many of the congregation were local Barbican residents, drawn from those who don’t disappear at weekends to country retreats, as many reputedly do. The church website suggests a lively worshipping community and a range of parish activities. Because St Giles is adjacent to the internationally celebrated Barbican Centre and the equally celebrated Guildhall School of Music and Drama, the church has many musical connections.

The neighborhood

This neighbourhood once teemed with small industries, breweries and businesses. The post-war rebuilding of St Giles more or less coincided with the comprehensive redevelopment of the parish, which had been heavily bombed in the London Blitz. The Barbican Estate, built between the mid 1960s and mid 1970s, was designed as upmarket housing for those working in the financial services sector. That labour force still makes up the bulk of Barbican denizens today.

The cast

The vicar, organist, choral quartet and a crucifer.

What was the name of the service?

Parish Eucharist.

How full was the building?

There were about 45 of us by the time a few latecomers trickled in. The church could accommodate several times that number, but we were spaced out well, so it felt comfortably occupied.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

A gent on welcome duty welcomed me and gave me the necessary paperwork and a hymnbook.

Was your pew comfortable?

The smart, modern pew in light-coloured wood was unusually comfortable as well as attractive.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

People sat quietly and listened to the organ prelude, which was billed in the service sheet.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

A loud voice on the speaker system said, ‘Please stand to sing our first hymn, No. 558.’ It was a bit like a railway station announcement, but had the desired effect of getting us to our feet.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The words of the service were spread across three different documents – one of which had the readings in full – plus a chunky blue hymn book. Managing this bundle was slightly confusing for a newcomer.

What musical instruments were played?

An organ in the north aisle, one of two pipe organs in the church. Apparently there is a third organ in the church office.

Did anything distract you?

The quartet of singers and their expressive conductor were positioned directly behind the high altar from where I was sitting, which is the sort of thing one sees in Methodist services. Given this was a eucharistic service, I wondered if they would not be better at the west end behind us, supporting our singing, but out of sight. One of the two organs was in a west gallery, inviting such an arrangement.

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

This was a straightforward eucharist with modern language and no frills. The sacrament is reserved, but there was no incense or carry-on. Apart from the crucifer, the vicar was unassisted, but coped well.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

10 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

8 — He had a lively delivery and was easy to hear and understand.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The sermon segued to and fro between the Epistle (Galatians 5:1, 13-25) and the Gospel (Luke 9:51-62), both of them pithy extracts. For me, there were two take-aways: ‘When St Paul lists sins and virtues, as he does here, it is easy only to hear the sins’; and ‘Jesus disturbs the comfortable and comforts the disturbed’.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The voices of the high-quality choral quartet filled the spacious church, which has a bright and clear acoustic.

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

After the final blessing, an organ postlude meant everyone sat immobile in the pews for six minutes, turning the eucharist into a recital, at the end of which people clapped. It was very well played, but far too lengthy. The fact everyone stayed suggests the post-service coffee is well attended.

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

After the endless organ music I wasn’t minded to loiter for coffee, although the vicar welcomed us to do so and the gent collecting up the hymn book as I left also spotted me as a newcomer and reiterated the invitation. Two electric urns of water were sighing away in the aisle in patient anticipation.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

I don’t partake of the bean, but it was laid out nicely on tables, so looked promising.

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

8 — I was intrigued when the vicar announced that during the following week the altar was going to be moved to the centre of the nave, as an experiment. I might attend out of curiosity, to see how worship in the round might work.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

Yes – uplifting music for the ear, something to think about from the sermon, and all in a calming setting.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

The four voices of the quartet singing Ralph Vaughan Williams’s ‘O How Amiable Are Thy Dwellings’.

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