One of the most celebrated of the churches designed in the office of Christopher Wren after the Great Fire of London in 1666, St-Mary-le-Bow was devastated by incendiary bombs again in the 1941 Blitz of World War II. Within the burned out walls the church was reconstructed in a 1960s version of modernised Baroque by architect Lawrence King. I find this a very pleasing period piece, but it is not to everyone's taste. The church has some stained glass windows by artist John Hayward that seem to chime neither with the neo-Baroque interior or the Wren original. The church still sits on a Romanesque crypt that dates from the foundation of the parish circa 1080 as the Archbishop of Canterbury's personal chapel in the capital. The crypt is in use as a rather good café where a toothsome lunch can be purchased weekdays. This presumably helps the church finances, too. But the present-day glory of this church is the tall and elaborate Wren bell tower. Many City churches are somewhat tucked away in narrow streets, but here the tower makes a fine show along Cheapside. The tower houses a fine ring of bells, the ‘Bow Bells,’ which are mentioned in the nursery rhyme ‘Oranges and Lemons.’ Traditionally, the term ‘Cockney’ referred to persons born within earshot of the Bow Bells.
Hardly anybody lives in the tiny parish of St Mary-Le-Bow today. It is entirely office and shopping territory in the heart of the financial district. Indeed the church doesn’t even open on Sundays, in common with many others nearby. Worshippers appear to comprise those with business connections locally who are in the centre of the city on a weekday. St Mary-le-Bow also hosts lectures and concerts and offers a weekday ministry for office staff.
Cheapside has nothing to do with ‘cheap,’ meaning ‘of low price’ – the name is a common English street name that derives from the medieval word for ‘market.’ Modern English ‘cheap,’ on the other hand, has a different etymology. Cheapside was originally the site of a major produce market. Charles Dickens called it ‘the greatest thoroughfare in the City of London.’ John Milton and Robert Herrick were born here, and Geoffrey Chaucer grew up nearby. Shakespeare mentions the street in two of his plays, and William Wordsworth, Jane Austin, and several other authors also refer to it. Today’s Cheapside is lined with offices and retail outlets. After the Blitz, rebuilding efforts attempted to imitate the architectural styles of years gone by, with questionable success – many of these buildings have since been demolished. St Mary-le-Bow sits approximately midway between St Paul’s Cathedral and the Bank of England.
The rector, deacon, sub-deacon, two assistants and a thurifer in the chancel, with an organist and two soprano cantors in the west gallery.
What was the name of the service?High Mass for the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple (Candlemas).
How full was the building?
At the start there were fifteen of us plus the altar party of six. By ten minutes in we had grown to twenty-eight, plus a few sightseers who had wandered in and watched from the back of the church. St Mary-le-Bow is not a large church so it felt comfortably occupied.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
A welcomer handed me the service sheet.
Was your pew comfortable?
It was a modern upholstered chair, which was comfortable without being luxurious.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quiet and reverent. As I approached the church five minutes before the service, the bells in Wren's magnificent tower above St Mary-le-Bow were ringing changes at speed, at the hands of a crack team of ringers.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
The cantors sang a Gloria as the altar party processed in. The first spoken words were ‘The Lord of glory be with you.’
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Just the service sheets, which contained everything we needed. The readings were not included but the sound system was a fine one, so that wasn't needed.
What musical instruments were played?
The organ, played rather well.
Did anything distract you?
The service sheet announced that an offering would be received during the offertory hymn—but it wasn’t. Over the last two years offertories have more or less ceased in churches for public health reasons. I hope people used the card reader beside one of the doors for a digital offering.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
A modern high mass with two hymns, sung mass setting by the 19th century Belgian composer and virtuoso organist Jacques-Nicolas Lemmens, anthem, homily, and procession by candlelight.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 — It was a clear, short, pertinent sermon. He was wry, rather than finger-wagging, assuming perhaps that we were on board with him and that the target of his laments were, perhaps, the shoppers in the street outside.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The preacher bemoaned the fact that our modern Christmas celebration is too short. He reminded us that it ought to run until the Presentation, 40 days after the birth of Christ. He referenced a publicly owned heritage attraction that ‘explained’ the tradition of Christmas gifts to its visitors without any reference to the Epiphany, or the gifts of the Magi, or the gift of God of his Son to humankind.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The church lights were extinguished for our candlelit procession around the church. In spite of it being in the middle of the day, it was quite dark, and the pinpricks of light from our candles mingled numinously with a fine smog the thurifer had worked up. Simple things like this, if done with sincerity, are a powerful gesturing towards the ineffable. The Nunc Dimittis (Song of Simeon) by the 20th century composer Geoffrey Burgon was sung as an anthem, since Candlemas is Simeon's feast day and the sublime circumstances of his contented death as described in Luke 2:29–32 don’t get a mention in the other three gospels. Burgon's is the haunting setting of the words that became an international hit when used as the theme tune for the television Cold War spy thriller Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Sorry to disappoint the gloomsters, but there was nothing hellish.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
The rector greeted everyone as they left and thanked me for coming. There wasn’t much hanging around; people had to get back to work!
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There is a coffee stall for office workers right outside the church, but I walked home and made my own early afternoon cup of tea.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 — I eat tasty lunches in the crypt but rarely attend services in the church above – perhaps my priorities need adjusting!
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 bells. They created a pretty loud sound on the pavements of the street below. I think English change-ringing is one of the most splendid sounds anywhere, but I did wonder how many of the shoppers understood that the bells were marking the end of Christmas. My thoughts, as it turned out, chimed with those of the rector's sermon.