St Anne’s, Soho, London, England


Info and corrections →

Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Anne’s, Soho
Location: London, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 25 February 2024, 11:00am

The building

The present church has a low-key street frontage made noticeable in the visual clutter of the Soho streetscene by neon signage. It’s a rebuild after the earlier Christopher Wren church was bombed in the Second World War. Only the 18th century tower survived the bombs and that is only visible from St Anne Gardens on the other side of the city block. Hence the modest street frontage of the church as worshippers encounter it. The church address is 55 Dean Street, and the postcode, W1D 6AF, gets you to the public entrance rather than the misleading tower. You enter along a downward sloping corridor as though going to a nightclub, but it turns into a well-lit, windowless room. It is L-shaped so that one arm where the altar sits can be closed off when the rest of the church is in community use.

The church

St Anne’s is an Anglican parish church for the urban village of Soho. Despite the district's reputation as a locale for food, fun and plenty of drink, there are still a surprising number of residents in this urban, dense and historic quarter. The church has several rooms adjacent to the worship space, which are used for community events, and the parish website gives the impression that the church is well plugged into the local community.

The neighborhood

Soho was in the 17th to 20th centuries famous for being home to successive generations of immigrants: French Huguenots; German religious refugees (both Catholic and Lutheran); waves of Jews escaping pogroms in Russia and the Baltic (the most famous of them being Karl Marx, who lived in Soho); and after the Second World War, Italians. The Soho ‘gay village’ has grown up since the 1970s, but these days marketing companies in smart offices are displacing many of the charming small French and Italian businesses. Even Soho faces gentrifcation. Many Soho residents these days work in the catering and hospitality industries, so are generally not affluent like the residents of nearby Mayfair or Marylebone. Soho still feels a bit bohemian.

The cast

The vicar presided, a visiting curate preached, the resident curate played various roles, and members of the congregation contributed in several ways.

What was the name of the service?

Sunday Service 11am Eucharist.

How full was the building?

About 45 people, which made the compact worship space seem full. Another 20 might have squashed in if every seat was filled.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

The two welcomers were still on duty for latecomers like me – and I was not the last. I helped myself to the service sheet of the day and a welcomer gestured me to an empty seat near the back.

Was your pew comfortable?

The upholstered chairs were comfortable and were a serene pale blue.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

I arrived a couple of minutes late, during the first hymn, so am unable to say.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

Being late I missed them, but according to the service sheet they were: ‘We meet in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.’

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The service booklet for the day had every word of the service in it – except for the Gospel reading, which was maybe an oversight – and was easy to follow. So there were no projector screens, thank goodness, nor juggling with hymnbooks. I noticed a visually impaired worshipper using an electronic version of the service book on a tablet, enlarged to jumbo font size, white on a black background. It was a sign of the inclusive attitude that evidently runs through St Anne’s without fuss.

What musical instruments were played?

A small organ to one side which made more than enough sound for the low-ceilinged space. It was played for settings of the service, hymns, and a quiet organ prelude for contemplation after the sermon.

Did anything distract you?

Above the altar is a bronze-coloured crucifix. It is at the focal point of the space and in one corner appeared to be a piece of white masking tape stuck on it. Could it really be masking tape, in which case what caused it to be placed there? If it wasn’t tape, just what was it? I found myself pondering about this twice but, dear reader, I can report that the distraction was not protracted, and I soon returned my concentration to the service. Though as I write this at home later, the mystery remains: what was that white thing on the crucifix?!

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

It was a modern catholic service, informal and without frills or too much carry-on. No incense or altar party. When the curate read the Gospel, she could have done with a reading desk or acolyte to hold the book. Generally, everything was like a family gathering. This impression was accentuated by the way the seating was slightly angled to focus on the altar, and that we received communion in a group of 25 or so, circling the altar. Numbers were such that we made two circles, one after the other. Everyone in the circle stayed in place until the last person had received; at that point we bowed to the priest, and he to us, and we moved aside to admit the next circle. This was such a nice way to do it – and more redolent of the collective meal we were re-enacting – than the usual production line approach at an altar rail. The vicar as he presided had a winning smile but also a thoughtful presence.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

15 minutes.

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

7 — It was Lent, and the parish had come up with the nice idea of inviting curates from central London churches to try their hand as guest preachers. If this sermon was anything to go by, the future of preaching in London looks promising.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

He stuck closely to his text (Mark 8:31-38) in which Jesus foretells his death and tells a sceptical St Peter, ‘get behind me, Satan’ for his worldliness. The passage as extracted in the lectionary goes on to narrate the celebrated Way of the Cross preaching: ‘What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?’ So there is easily enough for two sermons in a few verses. Our preacher interpreted this in two questions: What kind of Christ is Jesus? And what kind of followers does he seek? When the preacher mentioned biblical events beyond the readings, he carefully gave book and chapter references, which was a little clue of the charismatic evangelical bent of the congregation he normally ministers to, where it seems he wears neither clerical collar nor vestments. At St Anne’s he wore both.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The communion in a large circle.

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

Definitely nothing hellish. But if there was a qualification to balance my general enthusiasm for this service, I guess it would be the lack of natural light in the worship space. It was a brilliantly sunny spring morning outside, but we wouldn’t have known it. Seeing the sun would have matched the sunny disposition of the vicar and his people.

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

We had been invited to buy icons and crucifixes that an elderly priest had left after his death for the vicar to distribute in exchange for donations. They seemed to be going well and I acquired a brass Coptic Cross. This was an excuse to chat briefly with one or two of the parishioners, one Chinese, one Italian. There was an atmosphere of conviviality. At the door there were the three clergy, each of whom spoke and chatted to me. One said she came from a Baptist background, and then an Anglican house church. How would she describe the tradition at St Anne’s, I asked. ‘Modern catholic,’ she said. ‘Its so nice there are different paths’. The vicar asked if he didn’t recognise me then, spotting the purple shirt I was wearing, said, ‘You’re not a bishop are you?!’ I reassured him I was a lay person curious to visit churches other than my own from time to time. As indeed I am.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Birthday cake and coffee was selling briskly, but as I am off the bean on medical advice, I passed. It was served in ceramic mugs and widely enjoyed.

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

8 — If I wasn’t happy at my usual gaff, St Anne’s would be on my list of alternatives.

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


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

A welcoming, inclusive, accessible worshipping community in the urban heart of London. What’s not to like?

Our Mystery Worshippers are volunteers who warm church pews for us around the world. If you’d like to become a Mystery Worshipper, start here.

Find out how to reproduce this report in your church magazine or website.

Comments and corrections

To comment, please scroll to the end of this report and add your thoughts there. To send us factual corrections, please contact us. We also discuss reports on our Ecclesiantics bulletin board.

© Ship of Fools