Photo: © John Salmon and used under license Built to the plans of the late 18th/early 19th century architect John Plaw, who favoured circular designs in the classical style, the present church, consecrated in 1791, is at least the third on the same site. The present St Mary’s is a powerful composition of a cube overlaying a Greek cross, in yellow London brick, fairly plain, and not very large. The Victorians, rather predictably, altered the interior to make it look more like their idea of a church. When a big chunk of the large churchyard was compulsorily purchased for the construction of the new motorway alongside, the church used some of the compensation to restore the building, putting back the gallery, restoring the sanctuary to very close to its original layout, and reinstating the box pews, many of which had been removed by the Victorians. The architect for the 1972 restoration was the talented traditionalist architect Raymond Erith, but he worked modestly, without seeking to make his own mark. Though the new organ case at the west end was dedicated after his death as Erith’s memorial, St Mary’s interior today looks much as John Plaw left it in the late 18th century. The central oval space, white woodwork, graceful fittings, and intimacy of scale make St Mary’s a building of huge charm.
St Mary’s is joined with a second modern church a short distance north, near to a large concentration of social housing. Worship is in the modern catholic tradition in the Church of England and, as the parish website states, the parish ‘is a community of people who have a “mustard grain of faith.” We are not arrogant, thinking we have answers to everything. We have a humility that respects the questions inside most people.’
For several centuries Paddington was a tiny village on the Roman road running north west from the capital (today called Edgware Road, which at this point runs in a straight line for eight miles). St Mary’s lies right by the end of the elevated motorway known as Westway as it dips down to enter central London and just before the road rises again for the Marylebone Flyover. Hundreds of thousands of motorists thunder past and see this church daily, but few will have any idea of what it looks like inside. Much of the parish has been demolished, either in the 1970s for the road building or more recently for high-rise office development. The slightly surprising name of the Parish of Little Venice derives from the nearby canals that run through the neighbourhood; these are bordered by early 19th century villas, modern social housing, and towering offices – so look nothing at all like the city of Venice. Today, the part of the large churchyard that was not demolished for the road reaches north of St Mary’s and provides an important local green space.
The vicar, deacon and subdeacon, a thurifer, plus someone on tech to stream the service for those still too nervous to return to worship in person.
What was the name of the service?Solemn High Mass.
How full was the building?
It’s not a big church, and there were quite a few in the gallery, so I would say 60 in all, if you include those children who took communion (quite a few of them did).
Did anyone welcome you personally?
There was nobody obviously on duty, so I helped myself to a service sheet and used the hand sanitiser. As wearing the obligatory face mask makes my glasses steam up, I picked up the Sunday school work sheet, with a colourful cover, by mistake. I soon substituted it for the grown-up version, in sober black and white. Whilst choosing a pew, I was spotted as a newcomer and welcomed by a gent in clerical collar who turned out to be the vicar. Such words of welcome are appreciated if you are a visitor.
Was your pew comfortable?
Yes. I quite like box pews, so long as there is enough depth in the seat. In England we tend to sit as far back in church as we can so as not to appear too keen, and that applies to box pews as to other forms of seating, if St Mary's is anything to go by. Even though sitting in the same row as a stranger in an open pew is acceptable, opening the door of an occupied box pew into which one had not been explicitly invited does feel like an invasion of private space. Happily I found an empty one. The latches for these pews are on the inside, so you have to reach inside and grope around a bit to find the latch (another reason to hope to find an empty pew).
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Animated. The sanctuary lamp was being re-fuelled, the cantor was practicing, refreshments were being laid out, children were running around, a camera was being set up for the online worshippers, and vesting procedures were on view through the door to the vestry, which was wide open. There was much chatter.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
‘In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.’
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Just the service sheet, which contained everything we needed, including the readings of the day.
What musical instruments were played?
Organ, in the west gallery, accompanying the solo cantor. (Congregational hymns and chanting are still prohibited due to the pandemic.)
Did anything distract you?
The animated pre-service atmosphere segued into what was for me a restless worship atmosphere. The Sunday school met out of sight in the gallery; but the inevitable background noise of young children's chatter, plus toddlers and their minders moving around on the wooden gallery floor during their activities, was audible throughout, perhaps amplified by the acoustic of an oval domed worship area. There was a constant background sound, which I think was a mixture of the urban motorway noise from outside and the organ blower within. The sirens of emergency vehicles on the motorway inevitably intruded at what should have been the quietest parts of the mass. There was a sound system, but it needed volume adjustment or beefing up. The sermon was the only part that was comfortably audible. It sounded as though others were struggling too and uncertain of their cues for the responses in the mass.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
A solemn modern catholic mass with gold vestments of some splendour, incense, reservation of the Sacrament in an aumbry behind the altar, and Marian devotions to finish.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 — The vicar preached from a desk at the sanctuary steps rather than ascending the stairs into the lofty 18th century pulpit. His chosen position suited his style well. It was a brisk, accessible sermon securely rooted in the gospel reading of the day and a useful spiritual tool. We could do with more sermons like this.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser.’ He interpreted 'vinedressing' as seasonal pruning, a brutal necessity for new growth of the vine. We had all been prepared for new growth in faith by baptism, but pruning was often a more painful process whereby growth in faith arises from loss and pain, such as through the loss of a relative. The preacher himself had suffered this, as he had too a reaction to his Covid-19 vaccination. But he saw the good beyond the pain of the injection and felt able to hold the dying relative before God once he had passed through the pain of his loss.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
For me the sermon was the best part of this mass.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Not hellish, but the speaker offering the prayers of intercession moved the microphone away from his face before speaking. Together with the inadequate amplification and restless noises referred to above, this made him inaudible.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
We were invited to refreshments at the back of the church and asked to chat outside for social distancing. Some did, but there was a non-distanced indoor crowd at the west end too. Along with others, I made a small queue for the contactless offering gadget, but it was on the blink. Nobody spotted me as a newcomer, so after a minute or two of looking lost as instructed, I took the initiative and chatted to two young parents who lived locally, before going on my way.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
My physician has asked me to foreswear the bean, so I can’t say, but it came in insulated flasks, with a tray of biscuits (and was that fruit cake?). I didn’t spot soft drinks as an alternative.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 — It’s obviously a friendly congregation and most seemed to linger for chat, but I think they are as a result not looking out for visitors.
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 sermon and the delightful 18th century interior.