Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey, Westminster, London


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Westminster Abbey
Location: Westminster, London
Date of visit: Friday, 27 June 2014, 11:15am

The building

Probably the most familiar of Anglican houses of worship, thanks to all those royal coronations, weddings, funerals, etc. It's a mishmash of medieval, French Gothic, Tudor and Victorian – stunningly impressive. It causes sensory overload. And yet it feels tucked away: nearly hidden behind the Houses of Parliament, almost on a side street.

The church

I can say nothing that hasn't already been said, so let me simply note that it is part church and part museum.

The neighborhood

It's at the heart of historic/tourist London: the Houses of Parliament across the street, 10 Downing Street about three blocks away, St James Park and Buckingham Palace an easy walk away.

The cast

The Revd Dr James Hawkey, minor canon and precentor, preached the sermon, but someone else (unidentified) celebrated the eucharist service.

What was the name of the service?

Sung Eucharist.

How full was the building?

The transepts were both full; I couldn't see the nave from where I sat, but I don't think anyone was seated beyond the quire area.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

I was greeted with a friendly "Good morning" as I was handed a service bulletin at the abbey's entrance gate.

Was your pew comfortable?

My folding chair in the north transept was fine for a folding chair.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

The organist played beautiful music but the atmosphere was not reverential. Many obvious tourists chatted rather loudly to each other, pointing out architectural details.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

A 12-page service bulletin.

What musical instruments were played?

"Only" the organ, a Harrison and Harrison installed in 1937 for the coronation of King George VI. The abbey's website tells me it was completely overhauled in 2006 and that a new rank of pipes was added in 2008.

Did anything distract you?

The abbey itself is distracting: the arches, the vaulted ceiling, the stained glass windows, the plaques and flags and monuments, the hidden choir's voices seeming to come from the ether. But the tourists leaving at various points during the liturgy were downright disturbing.

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

Any service that takes place in the abbey is going to feel extremely formal, just because of the setting. I expected lots of ritual – processions, ornate vestments, incense – and got it.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

11 minutes.

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

9 – The Revd Dr James Hawkey was serious but not excessively formal, which contrasted nicely with the service itself. He used simple, direct language to talk about St Peter ("he got it wrong").

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The evolution and transformation of Peter. His different names in scripture indicate his different roles/aspects of his relationship with Jesus: Simon (birth name, "he who has heard") and Peter ("the rock" of the church's foundation).

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

It's too easy and obvious to say the choir's singing, though it was heavenly. I was struck by the racial diversity of all attending – so different from my small town parish – and I thought (hope) that heaven must be that diverse.

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

As beautiful as the abbey is, I have to say that the remoteness of the altar was painful for me. I felt like a spectator, watching on a monitor what was happening around the corner.

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

One is not encouraged to hang around after the service because the next queue of tourists is about to be let in.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There wasn't any. The Cellarium Cafe was open, but I wasn't ready for lunch.

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

5 – It's too big, too historical, to feel like a parish church. How would one find a role/way to contribute? Everything feels scripted, with the players already cast in their roles.

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

As I contradict my previous complaints: yes. Despite the tourists leaving before the service was over (and the un-Christian thoughts I had about them), and despite feeling like a spectator, I also felt connected, happy to be part of the Anglican Communion.

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

The exhilaration of walking out the main entrance afterwards as the tower bells joyously rang – and continued to ring until I was blocks away.

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