St Luke, Chelsea

St Luke's, Chelsea, London


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Luke's
Location: Chelsea, London
Date of visit: Sunday, 11 August 2013, 10:30am

The building

St Luke's, consecrated in 1824, is the work of early 19th century architect James Savage, and is Savage's best known work. The style has been called "Strawberry Hill Gothic" – i.e., with "Gothick" features (like Horace Walpole's house, Strawberry Hill), but not seriously trying to reproduce a medieval building (although its resemblance to Kings College Chapel, Cambridge, cannot be missed). The nave is 60 feet tall, the tallest in London, and the tower reaches 142 feet. The interior was original laid out as a typical 18th century preaching house, with a huge pulpit and minimal altar, but a late 19th century alteration produced an interior more suited to the building's exterior.

The church

St Luke's forms a parish along with Christ Church, Chelsea, which was originally a chapel of ease to St Luke's. (As of this writing, Christ Church has been temporarily closed for repairs.) Charles Dickens was married here on 2nd April 1836 to Catherine Hogarth. John Goss, who wrote the hymn "Praise, my soul, the King of Heaven", and John Ireland, who wrote the well know hymn tune "My song is love unknown", both served as organist at St Luke's. Today the church appears to serve a mostly affluent but otherwise very diverse congregation: white, black, and Asian, old people, young people, couples, families with children, and individuals. They hold a summer fair each year, and they sponsor a number of activities for children. The church is open for prayer each weekday until late afternoon.

The neighborhood

Chelsea, once Bohemian, has become one of London's most expensive neighborhood. Pricey shops and restaurants along the King's Road near the church cater to beautiful people of both sexes and many nations. Many of the row houses and flats are the second homes of wealthy owners from abroad.

The cast

The celebrant was the rector, the Revd Prebendary Dr Brian Leathard, assisted by another priest. The Revd Dr Carys Walsh served as deacon and was the preacher. Two laymen, vested in albs, administered the chalice, and the lessons and intercessions were read by lay folk from the congregation.

What was the name of the service?

Sung Eucharist.

How full was the building?

There were 90-100 in the congregation, but no one sat in the galleries and only a handful in the aisles, so the nave did not feel empty.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Yes. I was greeted warmly at the door both by the man who handed me the hymnal and service books, and by another woman who was standing by.

Was your pew comfortable?

Unremarkable wooden pew.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

A mixture: Some were praying or sitting quietly, others were chatting with their neighbours. There was a good deal of audible conversation from the back of the church.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Good morning, and welcome to St Luke's." This was followed by a number of announcements and the reading of banns.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The New English Hymnal, a service booklet (roughly Rite A from the Alternative Service Book 1980), and a leaflet with the psalm, lessons, and gospel. The language veered unpredictably (for me) from "you" and "your" to "thou" and "thy": not just the Lord's Prayer but the Gloria and the Sanctus were "traditional language."

What musical instruments were played?

Organ, played well: Morley, Milhaud, Karg-Elert, Holst. The instrument is an opus of John Compton Organ Builders dating from 1932 and incorporating part of the original Nichols instrument of 1824.

Did anything distract you?

I was glad to see a great many children in the congregation and nearly all were remarkably well-behaved. There were a couple of conspicuous exceptions, however, especially one who talked incessantly, and not in an "indoor voice." The child was finally taken outside by its mother, but only after the sermon.

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

It was a middle-of-the-road, family-friendly, parish communion, probably not typical because the choir were on holiday for August. The service was sung by the congregation to a setting by Merbecke, apparently unfamiliar. The celebrant was miked, and his voice often boomed out over the congregation's rather hesitant efforts. The final hymn was posted as "Abide with me", which I thought rather odd although it is one of my favourites. But when we got to the verse about "Change and decay", the rector suddenly stopped the music and announced that we'd sing the more upbeat "All my hope on God is founded" instead.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

8 minutes.

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

7 – The sermon was well-organized and related to the lessons and gospel. It was rather obviously read rather than simply spoken. I confess to having had a bit of trouble concentrating due to the chattering child.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The sermon dealt with the nature of faith. Some have faith in propositions, some in images. We all have faith in something, though perhaps not religion. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (from the gospel). Faith has consequences – not always good (e.g., it can close minds).

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

What I most appreciated was the variety of humankind in the pews. It was one of the least homogeneous congregations I've been in, and that is a good thing.

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

It's a toss-up between the noisy child and some intercessions that went on far too long, employed a lot of trendy seminary-speak, and kept telling God what he is and does.

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

I was immediately greeted by some regulars and offered refreshments. This seems a very friendly and welcoming church.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

A table was set up by the west door of the church with refreshments, but I had to rush off for a lunch engagement, so I failed to notice what was on offer.

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

4 – Not my kind of Anglicanism, but I was happy and heartened to see such a varied and relatively young congregation.

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

Not particularly, but it didn't make me embarrassed either, which is something.

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

That "change and decay" are no longer acceptable in bien pensant ecclesiastical circles. (In an Orwellian sort of move, the US Episcopal Church has expurgated that verse from "Abide with me" in its latest hymnal.)

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