Swedish Seamen's Church, Liverpool (Exterior)

Swedish Seamen's Church, Liverpool, England


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Swedish Seamen's Church
Location: Liverpool, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 14 December 2014, 5:00pm

The building

The Gustaf Adolfs Kyrka is an octagonal church of red brick, completed in 1884. It was designed by the late 19th/early 20th century English architect William Douglas Caroe, known especially for his churches and restorations of older churches as well as the main building of Cardiff University. A fine example of a stave church (a post-and-lintel design once common in northern Europe), it is one of only two such churches in England. The inside is rather plain, with blue painted pews that face a simple altar backed by a shiny brass cross. There is a lovely bronze modern figure of Christ with outstretched arms on a plinth in the sanctuary. The east window depicts the Good Shepherd. Artifacts related to the sea are scattered about, including a large brass ships bell and several models of steam ships in glass cases. There is currently a dispute over the ownership of this building, Norway vs Sweden. Once it is sorted, the Norwegian congregation hopes to put in bids to charitable bodies for funding grants. This will enable them to do a lot of restoration that's needed.

The church

Liverpool saw a wave of immigrants arrive from the various Scandinavian countries around the turn of the 20th century. The church was established to minister to their spiritual, cultural and financial needs as well as to keep seamen out of the pubs. Today it serves residents of Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Icelandic and Finnish descent, as well as fans of the Liverpool Football Club who jet in on weekends from across the North Sea. They offer coffee mornings, knitting circles, language and cultural lessons, theatrical and musical performances, Swedish craft fairs and film nights. With so much going on, it sometimes seems as if church services are an afterthought, but they do hold both traditional Lutheran and evangelical-style worship in Norwegian and Swedish.

The neighborhood

The church is close to the once-busy dock road and the famous Albert Dock. This thriving part of Liverpool in its heyday is now given over to eateries and sleeperies. The Baltic Fleet public house is a fine example of the many hostelries that once lined the dock road. The clatter of horse-drawn wagons over the cobblestones has given way to the swish of the motorcar. Wapping Dock warehouse (1856) is now a stylish apartment block.

The cast

They appear currently to be without a pastor, although their newsletter states that they have invited a newly ordained priest to be pastor-in-charge. The church treasurer, whose name was not given, officiated at the service.

What was the name of the service?

Lucia. An ancient Swedish tradition, the Lucia service honours St Lucy, martyred in 302 for refusing to set an offering ablaze as a sacrifice to the Roman emperor Diocletian. The story goes that Lucy was condemned to death by burning, but that wood heaped up around her would not catch fire. (Another story has it that she plucked out her own eyes to discourage a suitor who had admired them; she is often depicted as holding her eyes on a plate). In Sweden, St Lucy (whose name means "light") became associated with bonfires and candles lit to dispel the darkness of the long Swedish winter nights, and today her feast is celebrated in practically every Swedish home, church, school and office. In the Lucia service she is portrayed by a girl dressed in a white gown with a crown of candles, surrounded by girl choristers also in white gowns

How full was the building?

Full to the brim! You had to arrive early to ensure a seat.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Two men greeted me at the door. Ascending "Jacobs ladder" to the little chapel at the top of the building was like climbing the Matterhorn. Mind you, this goat (Capricorn) is fairly nimble. But I imagine the less able would struggle up the 34 stairs. There are plenty of stairs here, up and down! A lift would be handy, but I dont know where they would site one. We were asked to contribute 5 to go toward post-service refreshments and the restoration fund.

Was your pew comfortable?

Comfortable enough for the duration of the service, about 45 minutes.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Excitement! Hubbub, with kids and youngsters, mums and dads all eagerly awaiting the start, building to a deafening crescendo that drowned out the organist!

What were the exact opening words of the service?

Good evening, everybody in English, which was preceded by a greeting in Norwegian. Nice to see a hundred people here this night.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

No books were used. However, in the foyer I spotted the service books that are used normally: Lutheran Book of Worship and the Norsk Salme Bok.

What musical instruments were played?

Pipe organ and keyboard/piano.

Did anything distract you?

The small child behind me was a bit of a pain. He clearly did not want to be there and let us all know by crying, fighting with his sister, forcing banana onto her, and sticking his cuddly toy into the side of my face whilst kicking the back of my pew. I didnt really mind, though!

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

Easy going. Pretty little carol service, Scandinavian style, with lots of candles. The procession of ladies, children and men started below stairs and they slowly wended their way upstairs with lighted candles, led by a young girl wearing a candle coronet, lighted, singing as they came Santa Lucia. They all wore long white robes with red sashes. The men and boys were attired in long-sleeved white albs and pointy white hats adorned with stars. (Wee Willie Winkle in a pointed hat complete with candle.) They carried fairy wands and candles.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

No sermon.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The soloist (a girl of about 11) singing Stille nacht. The children, ladies and men (of which there were 30) sang a selection of Scandinavian carols beautifully. I recognised Twinkle, twinkle, little star (in English!); but the soloist singing Stille nacht transported us all to the lofty heavenly heights of that high-domed, Grade II listed building with its golden rosette decoration at the centre of the ceiling.

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

Those stairs are killers. Now I know what the angels on the west front at Wells Cathedral must feel like! You need an oxygen tank for the ascent.

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

The kicker's parents apologised for their sons behaviour and enquired whether I was coming for coffee and cake. Having paid my 5 I felt that I was entitled. And so I descended the steep narrow wooden stairway and found myself amidst a crowd of people seated at long tables covered in snowy white tablecloths with red plaid runners. Night lights twinkled in little holders, interspersed with slender vases containing crimson rosebuds. Large baskets of saffron St Lucy buns were placed on every table. A grandfather clock ticked gently in the corner; one or two cosy armchairs placed next to the bookcases invited one to sit down and take the weight off ones feet. Framed prints of mountains and forests, and somebodys granny looking rather stern in Victorian Sunday best, looked down on the assembled company. Everyone was most friendly and happy and enjoying themselves, if the noise was anything to go by.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

We were invited to help ourselves to tea from pots borne into the kitchen by a team of ladies. Piping hot coffee and soft drinks, orange and black currant, were also available. Also on offer were cinnamon whirls (Danish pastries) and thin, crispy clove-flavoured biscuits – if you ate too many your tongue went to sleep! The saffron St Lucy buns, with a currant at each end representing St Lucy's eyes, are specially baked at this time of year; the ladies had made them. They must have been at it for days because there were hundreds of them. One of the tea ladies was wearing national costume, a sort of yellow and blue pinafore dress, long, with a floral decoration on the bodice and an apron. At one point a small black pug trotted over to where I was sitting and begged for a bun. There was a raffle and some sale of work items: knitted scarves, small cushions, etc. I stayed and stayed and stayed; I was having so much fun, I could hardly drag myself away. I thought Ill never get home at this rate. No wonder the seamen loved this place – a place they could call home when far from home.

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

10 – Definitely. Id be glad to come here any Sunday.

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

Yes, very much so. The Christian and Christmas spirit are alive in here. Come and see for yourself; you will not be disappointed.

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

The candle-lit simplicity of this lovely service.

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