Mystery Worshipper: Cantate Domino
Church: St George's
Location: Hanover Square, London
Date of visit: Sunday, 7 August 2011, 11:00am
St George's is a dignified Georgian building, put up between 1721 and 1725 with money from the 50 New Churches Act of 1711. The architect was John James, the commissioner to the 50 New Churches. It has a Corinthian portico, which opens to an interior with dark wood pews and stalls, bright light through clear glass and light from many brass chandeliers. In the west gallery is an empty organ case – currently the parish is fundraising for a new instrument. The interior is surrounded by galleries in typical Georgian fashion.
St George's is primarily famous as having been George Frederic Handel's local church (he lived nearby in Brook Street, where his house is now a museum). The church maintains a superb musical tradition, of which I am sure Handel would approve. Given its location in Mayfair, St George's hosts many society weddings and in the past Disraeli, Lady Hamilton and Shelley were all married here. It also has special connections to the United States of America, as the American embassy is nearby and Teddy Roosevelt was married here. To this day, many Americans in London choose St George's as the venue for their weddings.
St George's is the local church for Mayfair and the
neighbourhood is as upmarket as one would expect for this locale.
Claridges, the famous five star hotel, is nearby, as are Bond Street
and Oxford Circus, and many designer shops. St George's is currently
prominent in the news for the lead the parish and its clergy are taking
in protesting against the City of Westminster Council's plans to raise
parking rates on Sundays, arguing that this will penalise churchgoers.
The rector (the Revd Roderick Leece), the professional choir of mixed voices, the organist Simon Williams, two acolytes, and a verger in a black robe and carrying a silver wand.
What was the name of the service?Sung Eucharist
How full was the building?
There were about 30 people present in a large church. I suspect the congregation were diminished by the summer holidays.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
The rector approached me to ask if I was there to sing in the choir. I hastened to assure him that my singing would not enhance the day's music.
Was your pew comfortable?
The large, carved Georgian pew was quite comfortable.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
It was very quiet, not least as there were so few people. Then the
organist played some very lively Bach.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"The Lord be with you."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
A printed order of service, using the parlance of the Book of Common Prayer but with the service re-organised; for instance, the Gloria was at the start, not the end, and we did not recite the doxology.
What musical instruments were played?
St George's is awaiting its new American pipe organ, so a perfectly
satisfactory electronic instrument was played.
Did anything distract you?
Around the galleries are lists of past wardens since the 18th century, and it was fascinating to see how many great names, including earls, marquises, baronets and generals, have filled this post. Many figures of political significance from the 18th century appeared in the lists.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Moderately high – there was no incense, but the priest wore a
chasuble and was assisted by two acolytes. The gospel was read and not
chanted, but the celebrant faced east.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
5 – The rector's style made for clear delivery with no quirks.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The discourse was rather muddled, but in general the rector was exhorting us to live up to the promise of the Transfiguration. In truth, I struggled to follow the point.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The exquisite music. The voluntary was the Chaconne in F by Pachelbel, the anthem was by Tallis, and the mass setting was by Palestrina. This music surely is performed in heaven.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The excellent choir reminded me how execrable the choir is in my home
church. I wanted to take them home with me.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
The rector gave me a hearty handshake and we chatted about the music, of which he was clearly (and justifiably) proud.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
None was on offer, so I found a nearby pub and a gin and tonic.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
10 – This is exactly my kind of church; reverent worship and superb traditional music.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Absolutely. This was dignified but meaningful worship.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
Superb music, in Handel's own church.