St Bartholomew the Great (affectionately called Great St Bart’s by those in the know) is a 900-year-old London landmark. However, due to the current pandemic, the church is open to visitors but not for services or other activities – and since your Mystery Worshipper attended via podcast, it seems redundant, indeed misleading, to describe the building as part of the experience.
The virtual community is universal, for anyone who wants traditional Church of England worship anywhere in the world, at a time of epidemic. Quoting from the church’s website: ‘We are hoping to put out regular Evensongs … [including] music, … sermons and readings … We are also putting together an imaginative package of videos to take you through the events of Holy Week and Easter … [and] a short prayer book to help us pray at home during these dark and lonely days.’
The neighbourhood of this service is wherever your Internet connection reliably pitches up.
The online credits don’t say who the ministers and readers were. But the choir was that of Royal Holloway College, University of London, based some 25 miles from the physical church of St Bart’s. The sermon was delivered from the guest preacher's home.
What was the name of the service?Podcast Choral Evensong for St Cuthbert's Day.
How full was the building?
I heard the podcast alone in my apartment one mile from the church. For medical reasons, I am enduring a period of self-isolation that may last two months or longer. It sounded from the Evensong responses as though there was a modest congregation who had braved personal attendance at the church, in spite of government recommendations to stay at home.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
There was a sentence or two of introduction indicating that this was the first of several intended podcasts.
Was your pew comfortable?
The chair at my computer is designed for comfortable sitting!
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
After the sentences of explanation, the podcast went straight in.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
‘I will arise and go unto my Father …’
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The Church of England Service of Evensong from the 1662 Prayer Book. A prayer from the Prayer Book of the Church of Ireland was added at one point.
What musical instruments were played?
None. There were no hymns and the choir sang a cappella.
Did anything distract you?
A noisy van outside my flat. This was noticeable only because the street was otherwise deserted on account of the shut-down of economic activity that has rendered London a ghost city.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Traditional Anglican Choral Evensong.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
6 minutes, 49 seconds. This question is so much easier to answer when there is an on-screen counter! In my view this is an ideal timing for any sermon – virtual or real-world.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 — The guest preacher was a certain well-known prolific novelist and historian who, for isolation reasons, was speaking from his own house outside London and was patched into the podcast. The preacher's disappointment at not being physically present at the Evensong, as intended, was balanced by the appropriateness of remembering Cuthbert's ministry at our time of epidemic.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The guest preacher took a historian's view of the life of St Cuthbert (d.687). He positioned him in a Britain that was – after the remnants of Roman rule had faded – again pagan, and said that Cuthbert’s life overlapped with that of the prophet Mahommed. The one person who served to illuminate Christianity was Cuthbert, living in Northumbria, a ‘thin place’ where the dimension of the heavenly readily seemed closer to earth. His healing ministry was remarkable in an age before vaccine, ranging from beggars to the high-born. This year, of all years, St Cuthbert's Day is worth celebrating and his ministry worth remembering.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The anthem sung by the choir: Hubert Parry's Lord Le Me Know Mine End. This might sound like a doom-laden piece for a time of plague, but it is beautiful and grounding. It is lengthy, about ten minutes, and its text is Psalm 39. Perhaps for these reasons there was no psalm said in the usual place. The choir gave Parry's setting a splendid rendering.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Not hellish, but the podcast was a collage of sound recordings made in different places. The preacher was at home, the minister in a studio by the sound of it, the congregation presumably in the ancient church of St Bart’s, the choir – who knows where they were? This slightly undermined the feeling that one was listening in on an act of corporate worship. It’s a minor quibble, though, and I think we may get used to hearing this increasingly.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I left my computer and went to make a cup of tea.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
I make an excellent cup of tea.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
10 — I shall look out eagerly for more of these. I have noticed several churches say they hope to podcast or release videos of services, but none I have looked at have yet got that up and running. Easter is close, so I hope they do.
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 guest preacher’s concise appreciation of Cuthbert – and the beauty of Parry's anthem.