St Cyrpian's Clarence Gate, London

St Cyprian's, Clarence Gate, Marylebone, London


Info and corrections →

Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Cyprian's
Location: Clarence Gate, Marylebone, London
Date of visit: Sunday, 13 September 2009, 10:30am

The building

The decent but unremarkable red brick exterior of the church in no way prepares you for the interior, which is much loftier than you'd expect and exceptionally beautifully furnished. White walls and a high arcade remind one of one of the great East Anglian medieval churches. But crucially, this looks like one that did not lose all its fittings in the Reformation and later. The screen, English altar and other fittings are rich but understated; nothing is for show alone, but everything done to emphasise liturgical purpose. It was all designed by Sir Ninian Comper in the early years of the 20th century and is probably his early masterpiece.

The church

I understand that over the last 20 years this parish has been troubled by dissent, semi-detachment from the hierarchy, and crises of various sorts. I came to mass open-minded to take it as it is today – and found it in interregnum and with a small congregation. I had read much on the parish's excellent website, which gives not only details of services and the usual information, but has links to photos, for the Comper fans, and an excellent explanation of why liturgy matters entitled "An Introduction to Our Worship and Practice," set out in clear jargon-free language.

The neighborhood

Situated at the end of a gloomy row of mansion flats, just off Baker Street, this is a prosperous but rather soul-less part of London. It is not one of London's villages, but an area with many tourists, hotels, offices, and nondescript streets. Apart from tourists on the Sherlock Holmes trail, there were few pedestrians as I made my way to church. I would guess that most attending St Cyprian's would have come from further afield, and since the church is a short step from Baker Street Underground station that's easy enough.

The cast

The Revd John Barrie, who was standing in, as the parish is in interregnum. An altar party of three, all vested in albs.

What was the name of the service?

Solemn Mass.

How full was the building?

When I arrived there were just six dotted around a spacious church, and I rather wondered whether I was and hour late or too early. A trickle of latecomers brought the total to 18.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

No, but there was, I think, someone on duty who was chatting to another arrival. I helped myself from the stack of handouts.

Was your pew comfortable?

Comper disliked pews and always furnished his churches with chairs, feeling that pews represented the worst aspects of English churchgoing that developed in the 18th century. Whatever were originally provided, we sat on oak wooden chairs of attractive 1960s design that fitted in well. They were not wobbly or noisy, and comfortable enough.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Silence was kept.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

A plainsong introit was followed by the Sign of the Cross.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

New English Hymnal, a service booklet (traditional language), and a sheet with today's readings.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ in the west gallery. There were two cantors with strong voices up there too (or was one the organist doubling up?). They helped greatly, given the tiny congregation.

Did anything distract you?

There were several young children who behaved themselves impeccably throughout the service. However, two babes-in-arms made non-stop noise. They called for their mothers, cried, shouted, and blew juicy raspberries. They wailed as we sang responses and hymns, they interrupted the sermon and readings so that they were substantially inaudible. They were seated behind me, so what attempts their parents were making to calm them I know not; but whatever effort there was didn't succeed, nor did their parents remove them from church to calm them down. There is a dilemma here. This kind of service is going to bore and frustrate babes-in-arms, who are going to require attention, noisily demanding it if they don't get it. A parish like this which is evidently short on personnel can scarcely justify a creche, but a room where the babies can be noisy offstage seems to me the only way. If this essential provision is not made, the worship and sense of prayer is quite lost for the rest of those present. I could not even hear about one-third of the service for the noise of the two babies. And what's more, they were in far better voice than the congregation when singing.

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

Traditional language. The priest celebrated facing east and there was no nave altar, though the altar party sat west of the screen until going to the high altar for the Gloria. The screen doesn't obstruct a clear view of the high altar, which is on of Comper's signature English altars – that is, a recreation of what one might have found in about 1450, with side hangings, dossal, and richly gilded tester. Incense but no flummery. It was all serious and not too much for show, just as the setting required.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

9 minutes.

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

6 – based on what I could hear over infant cries.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

He preached about good teaching and the revelation of divine purpose as the product of the highest form of teaching – that which actively enables discovery. And of the need to practice what one teaches, to walk the walk as well as talk the talk.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

Going up into the sanctuary from the nave to take communion, an approach to a holy place. I do so value this. When nave altars are used it is a moment that is lost.

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

Noisy babes – see above, at length!

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

Coffee was offered and there was a pile of expectant cups, but I couldn't actually see anyone pouring. I chatted briefly to the priest and left, as did most people, I think.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Available but passed over.

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

8 – If the service were uninterrupted and audible it would be right up there on my list.

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 beauty of the church interior.

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