Mystery Worshipper: Presbywildered
Church: London City Presbyterian
Location: Aldersgate Street, London
Date of visit: Sunday, 10 August 2008, 11:00am
From the outside, the church is a relatively uninspiring red brick 18th century building, almost something you would expect Calvinists to be meeting in. However, the inside is decidedly un-Presbyterian and very much reflects the building's more iconic Anglican past, with an array of very impressive stained glass windows ranging from St John to John Wesley, as well as dozens of ornate cornices and striking religious paintings.
The congregation is the Free Church of Scotland's outpost in central London, having met in this building since 2003. It had previously met at St Nicholas Cole Abbey and traces its roots as a congregation back to the 1940s. In addition to Sunday morning and evening worship, they offer Bible study in Portuguese as well as Afrikaans worship, the latter reflecting their special interest in reaching London's South African community.
The church is in the City of London, which is very much the financial heartbeat of London during the week but pretty quiet on the weekend, with the exception of a few tourists. The church is opposite the Museum of London and a few hundred yards from St Paul's Cathedral. I had the pleasant experience of listening to the cathedral's bells ring out as I walked to my music-free Presbyterian worship. I spent a few minutes before the service in the adjacent Postman's Park, a small, peaceful garden square and home to numerous memorials recalling the heroic acts of various men, women and children who had lost their lives attempting to save the lives of others. It seemed like an appropriate, albeit sober, way to get into frame of mind for the service at hand.
Matt Hornby, who is not the regular minister but helps with mid-week meetings, conducted the entire service. Mr Hornby confessed to being an accountant by training, as opposed to a fully-fledged, ordained minister. He was probably in his 30s, English (judging by accent) and looked somewhat like the actor Matthew Broderick (with a tidy beard). I learned later that the congregation had just started to search for a new full-time minister, as its most recent pastor (a Scotsman) had just left a few weeks earlier to minister at a church in Mississippi, USA.
What was the name of the service?Morning Service.
How full was the building?
At the start of the service there were about 20 people scattered throughout the main floor, but within 10 minutes that number had roughly doubled to about 35-40 as some families with young children filled in the back rows. In the end, the main body of the building was probably about 30 per cent full, but it didn't feel particularly empty. There was no one at all in the gallery, which seemed to be normal.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
A middle-aged lady shook my hand firmly and gave me a brief but friendly welcome, and her male colleague handed me a copy of the notice sheet and psalm book. There were about a dozen or so people sitting in the church when I entered. I took a seat in an empty pew – most people seemed to be working on the "personal pew" approach at that stage. No one joined me in the pew during the service.
Was your pew comfortable?
The pew was everything you might expect of a Presbyterian pew – it was narrow and hard with an upright back (although, in fairness, it was probably put in there originally by the Anglicans). There was a thin cushion in the requisite Presbyterian blue that helped take the edge off. To be honest, I found it perfectly acceptable, having been used to such church seats from childhood. As a concession to the modern fad for comfort, the Presbyterians had replaced the front half a dozen rows of pews with individual chairs, which looked more comfortable. The congregation seemed to split 50:50 on the benefits of such comfort, judging by where they sat.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Largely hushed and reverential. About half a dozen women sat together in the softer seats near the front and spoke to each other in pairs. They appeared to be very cheery. There were another half a dozen people, mainly youngish men, sitting individually in silence throughout the church. The speaker and a middle-aged lady, who would later lead the singing, chatted at the front about the choice of psalms to be sung in the service.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning and welcome to London City Presbyterian Church. My name is Matt Hornby." Mr Hornby then gave a brief description of his background and made some church announcements. They all related to BBQs, picnics and lunches – seems like Presbyterians appreciate their food.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The only two books used were The Holy Bible, New International Version, for the reading; and Sing Psalms, the new metrical version of the Book of Psalms with the Scottish psalter. There was a notice sheet but it wasn't really referenced during the service.
What musical instruments were played?
None. The Free Church of Scotland does not use any musical instruments at all. We sang Psalm 100 and Psalm 118 (in two parts) with the help of a female cantor. I wasn't holding out much hope for an uplifting performance, given that there were fewer than 40 people in a building that had a very high ceiling and poor acoustics, but it was very impressive. Several ladies seated opposite me really provided the backbone to the singing and everyone else chipped in to make it a truly joyful sound.
Did anything distract you?
Everything in the church appeared solid and well designed – except for the modern, glass/plastic lectern used by the preacher. Mr Hornby was relatively animated (by Presbyterian standards anyway), so it seemed like any time he moved his hands or a paper it would cause the lectern to move or make a noise. Otherwise, it was hard not to be distracted by the ornate beauty of the architecture. I found myself occasionally reading the narrative on some of the stained glass windows.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
This was the antithesis of everything evangelical worship seems to be these days. No bass guitar, no overwhelming drums, no tattooed guy singing endless, banal contemporary lyrics. No hands in the air, no outward expression of emotion. It was all very Scottish, very Calvinist, very much what you would have expected from the Free Church of Scotland. While it certainly wouldn't be for everyone, I found the low-key, reverential but assured style very engaging. There was a sense of inward, reflective engagement with God, as opposed to a particularly interactive, external style.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – For someone who was an accountant by training, Mr Hornby was actually a pretty accomplished speaker. He had an understated speaking style and rarely raised his voice, but he did use his hands and arms frequently to express himself (and occasionally knock the lectern). He was self-deprecating and used occasional but appropriate humour.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The sermon was on Matthew 21:28-46 (the parables of the disobedient son and the wicked tenant farmers). Mr Hornby made good use of modern analogies, especially Robin Hood (it seemed like he would rather have been an outlaw than an accountant) and Lord of the Rings. He highlighted how much of a shock the parables would have been to the original audience when the Pharisees, not the tax collectors and prostitutes, turned out to be the bad guys. He then provided some useful modern application to the congregation by substituting accountants who lead Bible studies (like himself) for the Pharisees.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The singing of metrical psalms.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
There really wasn't anything particularly like "the other place." If I had to choose one thing, it would be the perceived homogeneity of the congregation. I only spotted one non-white person (an Asian lady) in the entire church. I did see a "Juan" mentioned in the announcement sheet among more traditionally Scottish names like Iain and Angus. As you might expect with Presbyterianism, there also appeared to be some Afrikaners and Dutch in the ranks. But I thought there might be a little more racial diversity, given the church's location in central London.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
After the service ended, most people turned to someone sitting nearby and started a quiet conversation. As I was sitting on my own, I sat in silence for about 30 seconds and was just about to head over to the coffee table when I was approached by a middle-aged gentleman who introduced himself. He was very friendly in a low-key Scottish way. We talked for about five minutes about the church, living in London, and the general lack of Presbyterians in the city. It was all pleasant and I could have chatted longer, but made my excuses and left before anyone discovered my Ship of Fools calling card.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was a reasonable choice of water, coloured water masquerading as fruit drinks in plastic cups, and the obligatory free trade coffee/tea. More impressively, there were two large baskets of jaffa cakes and other chocolate biscuits – easily enough for three each. People were reasonably slow in heading toward the coffee table as they were engaged in conversations, so some of the toddlers took the opportunity to stuff their faces.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – I found the sermon to be very engaging and the people appeared friendly. It seemed like it would be a reasonably easy place to find a good church community. I loved the metrical psalms, but I wonder if after a few months the novelty might wear off and I might start hankering after a grunge band banging out some Stuart Townend songs.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, definitely. It was refreshing, encouraging, and seemed like an entirely appropriate way to step out of the chaos of London life on a Sunday morning.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
Two worlds colliding – old school Presbyterians singing wonderful metrical psalms, surrounded by beautiful Anglican architecture.