St James, Sussex Gardens, London


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St James
Location: Sussex Gardens, London
Date of visit: Sunday, 10 March 2019, 10:30am

The building

St James was built in 1881. Its Gothic spire is a local landmark and the church is built in yellow brick and stone, so it stands out against the white stucco streets around it. St James was designed by George Edmund Street, a celebrated church architect, but St James is a gentler building than many of Street's churches, which can be a little hard in their details and stern in atmosphere. Inside, the wide nave and aisles are lined with marble and there is a fine set of stained glass windows all the way around the church. There is a central nave altar on a very wide stone platform, placed about a decade ago.

The church

The parish website and magazine suggest a lively parish. There is a daily mass in the church. For Shrove Tuesday there had been a parish cabaret. The first Sunday in Lent had a parish screening of the Danish film Babette's Feast at 5.00pm; this is a slow-burn film of great profundity and seems an inspired choice.

The neighborhood

St James sits at the end of the wide tree-lined boulevard that is Sussex Gardens. During the post World War II years the notorious slumlord Peter Rachman bought up many of the tall houses in this area and converted them to warrens of bedsitting rooms: fire-hazards let at extortionate rents. The area has been gentrified since and is today much smarter. Many of the large houses have today been combined together to make hotels. It would be interesting to know if the tourist and short-stay residents of the area now outnumber permanent residents; I suspect they do.

The cast

The vicar, deacon, subdeacon, altar party of four, choir of eight.

What was the name of the service?

The Litany in Procession & High Mass.

How full was the building?

About 90. After the children and some adults left for Sunday school, 20 fewer.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Yes, the greeter hurried to the door from a conversation she had been having to hand me hymnbook, parish newsletter and service sheet, with a nice smile.

Was your pew comfortable?

A traditional pew and excellent. There were kneelers too, which the vicar urged us to use, lamenting the tendency to sit instead of kneel for prayers.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Hushed and reverential. A notice outside the church door reminded us we were entering the house of God and asked for silence inside. The service sheet further emphasised the message that before mass silence is kept. And so it was. I like this. I often find pre-service chit-chat distracting and inappropriate.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

‘Oh God, Father of heaven, have mercy upon us’ (the first words of the litany, which was then chanted in procession).

What books did the congregation use during the service?

New English Hymnal, service sheet for the day and weekly parish newsletter.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ, a huge instrument that occupied the northwest corner of the church.

Did anything distract you?

I am a great fan of nave altars. However, many are clumsily retro-fitted and look temporary and makeshift on their wooden platforms. Not so at St James, where a stone platform the width of the nave provides a setting of great spaciousness and dignity for the eucharist. However, set into the marble of the new platform are glass panels that are illuminated from below, and these surround the altar on all sides. I thought they produced disconcerting upward shadows on the faces and vestments of the clergy. And the poetics felt wrong too; surely an altar should be illuminated from the heavens above, not from the devilish realms below deck!

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

This was a full catholic mass, from soup to nuts. And as it was the First Sunday in Lent, there was the litany chanted by the altar party as they processed in a slow figure of eight around the congregation, who knelt and chanted the responses. One does not often heard the litany used today. There was incense, vestments, and a stately pace. Gestures were used, but sparingly – only enough to amplify the words and help make real the unutterable. The celebrant, deacon and subdeacon moved as one, as though intensely concentrating on the words of the rite, which helped us to do so too. There was a beautifully spare mass setting by Antonio Lotti (1667-1740) sung by the fine choir of eight.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

14 minutes.

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

7 — The preacher had an upright bearing, a fine Edwardian beard, and the kind of sonorous voice that reminded me of a Shakespearian actor of the old school. As a fan of 'received pronunciation' I felt the sermon was all the better for it. The church is equipped with a first-rate sound system, which meant that the sermon (and indeed the rest of the service) was effortlessly audible, without booms, cracks and thunks.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Ambitious in scope for a relatively short sermon, he preached on the gospel of the day: Christ's temptation in the desert as told by Luke and the resistance to temptation in Lent. My two takeaways: ‘Love of possessions and love of glory hinder our love of God.’ And on Idolatry: ‘Worship of idols is when we worship not the source, but the surrogate. Idolatry is really the worship of oneself.’ It was a chastening sermon, befitting the day, but delivered in a kindly voice. There was also a mini-homily earlier about Lenten disciplines. He asked us to consider daily mass, extolled the liberation of confession, and the keeping of silence. We have almost forgotten how to kneel, he said, suggesting that we might recover the habit in Lent (and beyond) as a further spiritual discipline.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

All of it. I have not been at such a dutiful and beautiful eucharist for many months. I was profoundly engaged.

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

There was nothing hellish in this service. But, since you ask, the sound of fans was audible throughout. As the church was nice and warm on a chilly day, I though perhaps a hot-air system was at work. Then my suspicions moved to a leaky wind system in the huge organ. Maybe it was both of these. In a less reverential service one might not have noticed them at all.

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

I chatted to two people who had sat nearby and I think they spotted me as a newcomer. In contrast to the silence before the mass, there was lively conviviality afterwards.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

We were all invited to the large porch (seemingly called the 'coffee cloister' for coffee or tea and about a third of people took up this offer. Avoiding caffeine, I didn’t partake, but it looked welcoming.

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

8 — If it were nearer to my side of London I would be there like a shot.

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 holiness.

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