Mystery Worshipper: Abed-Nego
Church: Holy Trinity
Location: Sloane Square, Chelsea, London
Date of visit: Sunday, 11 June 2006, 11:00am
Consecrated in 1890, Holy Trinity is the last and finest work of the noted Arts and Crafts architect John Dando Sedding. It is a free adaptation of the late English Perpendicular style, with Gothic, Renaissance and even Byzantine elements clearly visible. Former poet laureate John Betjeman called the church "the cathedral of the Arts and Crafts movement." The west front is of banded brick and stone, with twin turrets flanking the west window. Upon entering, one's eye is immediately drawn to the massive east window, one of the largest and most complex to be found anywhere. The interior abounds in detail – decorated railings, cherubs, altar-pieces, absolutely stunning stained glass, and a rather jolly looking Madonna and Child. The proportions, the decor, and, above all, the windows simply take your breath away. This church is truly a wonder to behold – beautiful, complete, and unspoilt by the passage of time. It should be on the itinerary of every visitor to London.
According to their website, Holy Trinity "provides a vibrant spiritual and physical presence in the heart of Chelsea, with an international congregation befitting a world city such as London." The congregation appeared to be a broad cross-section of people who live in and around Chelsea, and although the church has the obvious potential to attract tourists, I felt I had joined a community of people who regularly worship in this place.
This is quite a well-to-do area, serving as a magnet for up-market shoppers, with a wide array of restaurants. For theatre-goers, Sloane Square is the home of the Royal Court Theatre.
The Right Rev. Michael Marshall, rector, was the preacher. The celebrant was the Rev. Nadim Nassar, director of Trinity Foundation for Christianity and Culture. The director of music was Andrew O'Brien.
What was the name of the service?Sung Eucharist, Festival of Title
How full was the building?
Pretty full, around 150 people.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
A pleasant "Good morning."
Was your pew comfortable?
These must be the most comfortable seats in all Christendom. (Are they a recent addition, maybe?) There's plenty of space to kneel and nothing slides around. And the hassocks are quite beautiful.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
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?
New English Hymnal.
What musical instruments were played?
Organ – and a first rate instrument it was.
Did anything distract you?
I was thoroughly distracted by the stunning beauty of everything. Wherever I turned – the pulpit, the high altar, the lectern, the light fittings, the organ case – my breath was taken away, and these are surely the most awe-inspiring windows imaginable.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
This was high church, Anglo-Catholic worship, very Anglican – in modern English.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
I'm ashamed to admit, I was so taken with Bishop Marshall's preaching, I forgot to look at my watch at the end. But I'd say it was about 20 minutes.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
10 – I am an admirer of Michael Marshall's books, and so I was expecting a lucid and highly literary style. I was not disappointed. He is simply riveting as a speaker, and delivers with a freshness and clarity that had me in the palm of his hand.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Bishop Marshall spoke on John 3:16 ("For God so loved the world..."). First, the bishop asked us to imagine what God is like. He reminded us that God sent his Son to show us the face of God, and that the ultimate picture is of a dying man. There's no way we can understand such love, but we might experience it. First we are loved by our mothers. We respond to this love with love. And finally we fall in love. This in short is trinitarian love. He invited us to "lift the veil of dry doctrine" by quoting St Teresa of Avila: "Prayer is not thinking much. Prayer is loving much." We come to church to worship, to adore, and eventually to love. Everyone worships something – football, booze, drugs, overeating. But for the Christian, God is our ultimate concern – not religion, not this church, but the love we have for the God who sent his Son to die for us.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Oh, the whole experience was heavenly, with one exception.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The exception being that the choir seemed a bit out of control. They came scurrying in with a rather relentless, loud, out-of-tune rendering of Alleluia, I heard a voice by Thomas Weelkes. Things improved in the mass setting by Widor – Widor's style seemed much closer to their own. Although the service leaflet mentioned a Benedictus, the choir sang none – I guess Widor must not have set it. And the promised anthem, Schutz's setting of Psalm 100, never happened either.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
The mass ended in a very original way. We were led outside into Sloane Square, where a large net of helium-filled balloons awaited us. The children then released the 265 balloons, one for each congregant on the church's electoral roll, with the aid of a character Bishop Marshall addressed over the loudspeaker as Mister Balloon Man. It was fun to see the police bring the traffic to a complete standstill while we sang "Christ is made a sure foundation"!
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
We headed back toward the church for wine and some not-very-interesting nibbles served from tables outside the entrance. It was an exceedingly hot day, and no one seemed eager to strike up a conversation.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 – The organ playing was excellent, but the general lack of choral discipline would make it difficult for me to settle down here. I'd have to go and get my musical fix in one of the many local churches with more interesting musical traditions.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Very glad indeed.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
That I had surely been in a house of prayer.