Mystery Worshipper: E. Lean
Church: All Saints Margaret Street
Location: Fitzrovia, London
Date of visit: Wednesday, 1 March 2006, 1:10pm
Mid-Victorian Gothic revival at its greatest. This is a wonderful building, squeezed into a tight space less than a hundred feet across, yet somehow packing in a vicarage, parish rooms, a small schoolhouse, and one of the most magnificent church buildings in London. Inside, it feels like walking into a tapestry. Almost every part of the interior is covered with decoration. There are a few windows low down, thus strengthening the impression of darkness and mystery and drawing the eye upward. The east end features niches containing tiers of life-sized pictures of saints in a vaguely late mediaeval style. The north and west walls have vaguely pre-Raphaelite tiled mosaics depicting many saints. The organ, the pulpit, and the Lady chapel are all decorated in styles that contrast with each other and the windows and the walls – but as a whole it works, in a way that is beyond my ability to describe.
The congregation on this Ash Wednesday afternoon were more middle-aged and elderly than young (which is normal for the Church of England) and perhaps slightly more men than women (which certainly isn't). Accents tended to the posh, with one or two obvious American voices. But few of them were wearing suits or expensive-looking clothes – quite the opposite. If anything, there was an air of shabby respectability. There still are people in Britain who mend their clothes, and some of them were here.
Margaret Street is a quiet back street two blocks north of Oxford Street on the border of Marylebone and Fitzrovia. The immediate vicinity is densely urban, crowded with mildly upmarket shops, mid-priced restaurants, head offices of small but prosperous businesses, private clinics, design consultancies, engineering companies, quite a lot of traditional-looking pubs, and a surprising number of churches. But its only a stone's throw from London's busiest shopping street, a couple of hundred yards from the late-night partying and all-day drinking of Soho and Tottenham Court Road, maybe a quarter of a mile from the millionaires of Mayfair, and not that much farther from the start of the vast bedsit land and cheap hotel country stretching to the north and west through Marylebone to Paddington, West Hampstead and beyond.
No idea.There was one robed priest celebrating, and another reading. They were joined by a third man to distribute the wine. There were no announcements, notices, or other clues to their identity, and by the time I had finished looking round the church after the service they had all gone.
What was the name of the service?Low Mass with Imposition of Ashes.
How full was the building?
About 30 people when the service started, but quite a few people came in and sat at the back during it – I'd guess there were 40 to 50. The building is large enough that few of us were sitting near anyone else.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
No, but a man handed me a service sheet when he saw I didn't have one.
Was your pew comfortable?
A smallish upright wooden chair. It was OK, but I'm not a smallish or upright person so I didn't fit into it very well.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Very quiet. Many of those present were kneeling or seemed to be praying with their eyes shut. No conversation at all. The church was quite dark until the sun came out from behind a cloud and illuminated part of the east end in glorious red and gold light.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
A printed order of service with the congregation's part of the liturgy.
What musical instruments were played?
None, there was no music.
Did anything distract you?
The high altar glimmered faintly in the distance through the exotic gloom behind the priest, but he was using a table in the nave. This was low mass.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Quiet, restrained, Church of England Common Worship. There were a few clues in the liturgy that the church is toward the high end of the scale, but nothing actually done that might not have been done in more or less any Anglican church. A smell of incense in the air, but none actually used at this service.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
There was no sermon.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
My heart did lift up when the sun shone through the window. Maybe we weren't in heaven, but we could certainly see it, high up there at the east end of this wonderful building.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The usual embarrassment of trying to drink from a chalice held by someone much shorter than I who refused to let me hold it myself. Wet beard and moustache time.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Most people left very quickly and quietly.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 – I can't really answer that on the basis of this one service. I'd need to be present at the regular Sunday services.
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 sunshine on the paintings.