St Bartholomew the Great, Smithfield, London

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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Bartholomew the Great, Smithfield
Location: London
Date of visit: Sunday, 28 May 2023, 11:00am

The building

The church was originally founded by a courtier of King Henry I in 1123 as an Augustinian priory and hospital, outside the walls of the City of London. The church is therefore celebrating its 900th anniversary this year. The priory was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1539 and by the time of Elizabeth I had become a parish church. The nave of the church was demolished at the time of the dissolution, so the congregation now worship in the choir. The building bears traces of the original Norman structure, a rarity in central London which survived both the Fire of London in 1666 and the Blitz in 1940. The iconic rounded apse of semicircular arches is largely a 19th century reconstruction, and only a few of the columns along the choir and in the clerestory are genuinely Romanesque.

The church

The parish of St Bartholomew the Great was dissolved in June 2015 and replaced with the united benefice of Great St Bartholomew, which includes the nearby St Bartholomew the Less (within the St Bart’s Hospital) as a chapel of ease. The church was described by one of the churchwardens as having a thriving youth community, the rector being especially popular with young people.

The neighborhood

It is worth noting that, like many inner London parishes, many of the parishioners do not live in the area, but commute to services.

The cast

The rector acted as a deacon and homilist. The main celebrant was the associate priest, and another associate priest acted as sub-deacon.

What was the name of the service?

Choral Eucharist for Whitsunday or Pentecost.

How full was the building?

About 60 percent capacity. I sat directly to the left of the high altar and had the entire pew to myself.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

A polite ‘good morning’ from the gentleman who handed me the hymn book. The lady behind me tapped me on the shoulder and said that I was most welcome to take communion if I was baptised.

Was your pew comfortable?

The pews face inwards towards the aisle, so one is most comfortable looking at the congregants on the opposite side of the quire. However, to view the altar or the lectern requires a contortion of the torso which may become uncomfortable when maintained. On an uncharacteristically sunny London day, the pews on the left can be struck with beams of sunlight from the southern clerestory windows, resulting in patches of particularly holy-looking (albeit squinting) congregants.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

With four hymns per choral service, there was a lot of shuffling through the pages of Common Praise to place bookmarks – donation slips and pieces of tissue – to prepare for the service. Most people showed up early, many in a jacket and tie, and several with bow-ties.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

‘Spiritus Domini replevit orben terrarum, alleluia’, the introit for Pentecost.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Common Praise, and Hymns Ancient & Modern.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ with fully robed professional choir. Bells during the elevation.

Did anything distract you?

I missed quite a few of the prayers of the congregation because I was watching the incense. As opposed to typical front-facing pews, where the incense comes from the sanctuary and ‘washes over you’, the transverse seating in the church allows one to watch the sweet smoke waft by. The thurifer kept the lid quite high above the burner – alla ambrosiano – meaning that the charcoal remained very well fuelled. Even when swayed gently, voluminous cumulonimbi would float out and process down the quire in succession, caught by beams of sunlight from the clerestory. As each came by, one could see in great detail the sinuous tendrils of smoke dancing and swimming around swirling vortices.

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

I mistakenly assumed the mass setting – comprising mostly of the Kyrie, Gloria and Sanctus – came from an English composer in the school of Vaughan Williams, having the dissonant chords and loose structure typical of 20th century Anglican music. The setting was, however, from the Messe Solennelle by Jean Langlais, a self-described ‘Breton, of Catholic faith’. The virtuosity of the choir in navigating this piece is to be noted. However, traditionalists would have been soothed by the marching 19th century congregational hymns with their easy melodies.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

9 minutes and 30 seconds.

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

8 — The preacher and rector has a jolly demeanor, but with all the eccentric charm of an Anglican clergyman. The sermon wove between anecdotes, philosophy, art history and poetry, and the orator's erudition shone throughout.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

For Whitsunday the theme was the Holy Spirit, or the more Anglican appropriate Holy Ghost (as distinct from the less-holy ghost of the monk Raherius, who appears annually from the St Bartholomew’s changing room at 7am every July 1st. The sermon gave a polite nod to those in the charismatic tradition, admitting that ‘there has always been a strong Anglican distrust of enthusiasm’. Nevertheless, the rector spoke of the movements of the Holy Spirit in the more High Church hobbies of singing and painting, describing the sacred rapture of aesthetic pleasure he occasionally experiences in museums and cathedrals. He finished off with a dramatic reading of the poem Prayer (I) by George Herbert.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The Sanctus was especially powerful. It is a rare and beautiful thing to hear a soprano section sing in unison without screechy competition. At that moment, the celebrant, deacon and sub-deacon were positioned ad orientem, with servers behind them. Beyond the rail were the row of candle-bearing servers –potentially acolytes – who would raise their candles along with the elevation of the host. Together with the thurifer, they created a screen of light and smoke which seemed to shroud the altar in a veil. The successions of visual obstructions through an axial space, paired with the echoey Sanctus of Langlais, were the prefect expression of sanctity as embodied in traditional liturgy.

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

The distribution of communion is always slightly uncomfortable for interconfessional church-hoppers who have no desire to accidentally excommunicate themselves. Unlike many Anglican parishes, no instructions were given for those who wanted to receive a blessing in lieu of communion. Remaining in the pew earned me a few confused stares, and the lady behind me seemed to imply I ought to have partaken, given that I had received a trinitarian baptism.

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

A gentleman in the next pew spoke to me immediately after the service, inviting me to coffee in the cloister afterwards. I took up this offer, but he disappeared while I was on the way. After ‘examining the architecture’ for 5 minutes, a young lady came and introduced herself as the parish secretary. She spoke to me about the intricacies of her secretarial role, and how she was waiting to meet with an assistant who was running late. She then introduced me to a churchwarden, who walked me to the coffee counter where there was also a plate of Lotus Biscoff on offer. He then spoke to the young man operating the coffee counter, making some arrangements for the upcoming evensong-in-the-city, which I listened into. Soon, one of the priests came in and rearranged the crowd, leaving me to examine a painting of the Madonna. I left unnoticed 5 minutes later.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Cup and saucer, with only drip-filter available. Milk is optional, and sugar could not be seen.

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

9 —

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

Yes, but the beauty of the liturgy and the devoutness of the congregants made me ache for better ecumenical dialogue and the promotion of Christian unity.

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

The words of the sermon ring in my ears: ‘There has always been a strong Anglican distrust of enthusiasm.’

Image: Diliff under CC BY-SA 3.0

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