Holy Trinity, Sloane Square, Chelsea, London, England


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Holy Trinity, Sloane Square
Location: Chelsea, London, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 10 March 2024, 11:00am

The building

Designed by the late 19th century architect John D. Sedding, and mostly paid for by the Earl Cadgoan, the aristocratic landlord of many of the streets around it, whose descendent the present earl is still patron of the church living. Opened in 1890, Holy Trinity found itself in the right time and place to attract handsome gifts and legacies for many rich and beautiful fittings in the arts and crafts tradition. Prime among these was a complete set of stained glass windows by Edward Burne-Jones, with ravishing hues and fine drawing. But the richness of the interior is beyond the scope of this brief note, and there are quality guidebooks on sale for those who visit in person. A small number of windows were lost to a wartime bomb, but most survive. A modernising bishop in a hurry actually slated Holy Trinity for demolition in the 1970s, but there was a national outcry from fans of Victorian architecture and the arts and crafts movement. Both sets of fans were at that time generally thought to be eccentric, if not disturbingly weird, but the fans prevailed. The strapline adopted by this church today is, ‘The world will be saved by beauty’, which is featured on the service sheet and on the church website. This is a church so beautiful they can carry off such a slogan better than most; but I am sceptical that beauty alone will suffice. Anyway, isn’t it contrary to church teaching on salvation?

The church

Having survived the threat of closure 40 years ago the parish has slowly recovered and rebuilt to become a notably thriving and busy place of worship; a rebuff to the bishop who thought it redundant. The parish website shows a good range of worship throughout the week, various forms of music and of social activities. Among the musical offering is Song and soup, a community choir for the elderly and isolated launched by the director of music, which won a Community Hero award last year. SW1X 9BZ

The neighborhood

Holy Trinity is a few steps away from the haute-couture shops of Sloane Street and the hardly less fashion-conscious King’s Road. This vicinity is therefore undeniably posh and high-style, with nearby houses selling for tens of millions. Whether the worshipping parish are likewise posh is difficult to guess. Some clearly dressed up for church, others seemingly down; while I joined the majority by arriving just as I am. Happily, there was no personal ostentation on display.

The cast

The curate led the service. The parish is in an interregnum, and the retired Bishop who serves as a second assistant priest was away. There was an altar party of five, and a choir. The readers and the intercessor were from the congregation.

What was the name of the service?

Choral Eucharist.

How full was the building?

Pretty full. In spite of being a spacious and notably wide church, it was comfortably full. There were about 200 people, though some 40 adults and children left at the beginning for the children’s church in the adjacent hall, returning at the time of communion for their blessings at the altar rail. This seemed to work well for parents and children.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

A worshipping team of three. The gent who gave me the service sheet patted me lightly on the arm to emphasise his words of welcome. They were doing a great job and as there was a torrential downpour of rain, were inevitably getting a bit wet from the umbrellas and streaming coats of those running into church for shelter.

Was your pew comfortable?

Modern chairs with woollen upholstery, comfortable enough.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

The service sheet declared that from 10.55am silence is kept. A gathering of parents at the back obviously hadn’t got the message and were chatting loudly, though their children were pretty quiet and well-behaved, so there was no silence. A few of the parents continued to chat through the choir’s beautiful Introit, which struck me as discourteous.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

‘Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open...’ (the Collect for Purity), led by the priest with the congregation mostly joining in.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The printed service sheet for the day had everything we needed.

What musical instruments were played?

A pipe organ in the north aisle, well played.

Did anything distract you?

The Burne-Jones glass extends to a really huge east window above the altar, across the whole width of the church, displaying large figures of 48 apostles, saints and fathers of the church. This spectacular display did occasionally draw my attention, but not too badly, as distractions go.

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

A modern language eucharist as expansive as the church is spacious, running to 92 minutes. Four hymns, which the congregation sung fairly enthusiastically. As it was the third Sunday in Lent, the priest wore rose-coloured vestments and the incense was of the rose perfumed sort. I find the latter a bit boudoir for church. The Ave Regina Caelorum was sung in Latin by the choir after the blessing and final hymn. The mass setting was Missa Brevis by Zoltan Kodaly (1882-1967), which I suspect is difficult to sing, but was achieved superbly by the parish choir of seven trained voices. The Introit interrupted by chatter was Mother of God by John Tavener (1944-2013). I noticed in the Peace that handshakes were the norm, the first time I have seen this practice re-established since the Covid pandemic. I stuck to giving the Peace with prayerful hands and a slight bow, which might in the circumstances have seemed stand-offish. But Covid 3 is now doing the rounds.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

17 minutes.

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

8 — A fine, confident, sermon, well-prepared and well-delivered from the very high nave pulpit, rather as it might be in a cathedral. No informal preaching from the sanctuary steps here! Every so often the preacher raised his forefinger high to the heavens in a gesture I associate with John the Baptist. It was an effective means of emphasising a point.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Motherhood. It was Laetare Sunday (aka Mothering Sunday) and the preacher explored the theme from several angles: Moses’ adoptive mother Miriam, the special and singular role of the Virgin Mary, and the Mother Church of which we are a reformed and catholic part. Take-away quote: ‘If Moses can accept Miriam as his mother, maybe we can accept the Virgin Mary as ours.’ There was a lot of meat in this sermon, and I looked afterwards to see if the parish puts sermons on its website for those who would re-read them; but no.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The Kodaly Mass, very moving in its ethereal harmonies.

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

A baby had not gone to the children’s church, which otherwise was patronised by all the children, from babes in arms up to about 10, together with their parents and guardians. Predictably, in a lengthy service like this, the remaining baby protested noisily at various points. Should one worry about this on Mothering Sunday, of all days? Well, the baby was clearly fretting or unhappy, so I would have suggested the parents and child use the children's church for the greater part of the service.

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

There was a lot of chatter, perhaps because it was still pouring with rain outside, and people delayed their departures. I chatted with a couple who had sat near me. On leaving the church, I was given a small box of Austrian chocolates ‘to take home for mother’. As the women in the congregation had been presented with bunches of daffodils by the children on their return from the children’s church, this seemed a little like a gesture to include the chaps. I hope the elderly neighbour to whom I gave them was as happy to receive them as she seemed.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Coffee was available at the back of the church in proper cups (saucers too!) but I am off the bean.

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

8 — It’s not my part of London. If I were nearer I might well go occasionally for the fine music, the sense of a thriving parish – and maybe chocolates!

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 Kodaly Missa Brevis.

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