St Magnus-the-Martyr, City of London


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Magnus-the-Martyr
Location: City of London
Date of visit: Sunday, 17 October 2021, 11:00am

The building

A classic Wren church, St Magnus rejoices in its white-washed walls and dark wood altar more gloriously than almost any other of Wren's masterpieces in the City. A relatively small space, it is made airy thanks to Wren's characteristic use of lots of light and tastefully-gilded Ionic columns – all of which TS Eliot referenced in his poem ‘The Waste Land’: ‘Where the walls of Magnus Martyr hold / Inexplicable splendour of Ionian white and gold.’

The church

Quoting from their website: ‘A beacon of the Anglo-Catholic tradition, we are open for daily prayer and celebrate a rich and musical High Mass each Sunday.’ St Magnus also serves as the Livery Church for the Worshipful Companies of Fishmongers and Plumbers.

The neighborhood

The parish itself has zero residents, being as it is comprised exclusively of offices and businesses at the throbbing financial heart of the City. It is surrounded, as with most City churches, by monstrous skyscrapers, which gives a pleasing juxtaposition to the Wren jewel lying at their feet.

The cast

An associate priest celebrated, the rector preached and served as deacon, and there was a subdeacon – all assisted by thurifer, acolytes, servers, verger, and four robed churchwardens.

What was the name of the service?

Solemn High Mass.

How full was the building?

Around half-full; averaging two to a pew for a congregation of, I'd estimate, around forty. I was visibly by far the youngest there, at 21. None of the congregation live in the parish. All commute in from near and (relatively) far.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Yes. A lovely gentleman welcomed me effusively as I collected my hymn book and order of service. The priest was there too, who appeared to hurry me along so as to not get embroiled with him. I found this a bit odd.

Was your pew comfortable?

Reasonably so. The pews had their own interest, slanting away from the altar; initially I found this strange, but the arrangement allowed for excellent visibility of both the altar and the pulpit. Kneelers were provided and were comfortable.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

In the body of the church, relatively quiet, but accompanied by the (excellent) choir's rehearsal. Outside in the vestibule there was much conversation.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

Asperges me, Domine, hyssopo et mundabor...’ (You will sprinkle me, Lord, with hyssop, and I shall be made clean).

What books did the congregation use during the service?

New English Hymnal for the two hymns sung (offertory and closing), with the rest of the liturgy printed in the order of service. This followed very traditional language, based on the Book of Common Prayer.

What musical instruments were played?

A large organ about which I know nothing – apologies!

Did anything distract you?

The splendour of my surroundings. This worshipper has a large soft spot for Wren churches, and this is an especially fine example.

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

Nosebleed-high Anglo-Catholic. This certainly would have been too much for many: lots of Latin, doffing of birettas, sprinkling of holy water, and the confession and absolution muttered between the clergy as the choir sang the Kyrie.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

14 minutes.

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

9 — The rector's preaching was absolutely outstanding. Utterly Anglican in temperament, delivery and content, but thoughtful, challenging, lightly witty, and relevant to the service as a whole, the gospel, and our daily lives. Hugely thought-provoking, especially when the congregation is so physically close to the economic and political levers of power. Easily among the top three preachers I have ever heard in the Anglican Communion.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Power, justice, and kingdoms. Linking to the gospel reading of James and John's appeals to Jesus to sit on his right and left hands at the day of judgement (Mark 10), the rector examined how and when we should avoid seeking power, and when we shouldn't.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The pinpoint-precise, no-beats-missed accuracy of the movements of all the altar party at the beginning and throughout the service. The perfect example of this was the opening procession, which arrived at the top of the nave as the churchwardens spun through 90 degrees and left the clergy party, who without missing a beat turned to face them, doffed birettas, and carried on. They all moved with such precision, they could have been on rails under their cassocks.

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

It was very drafty. To his credit, the rector owned up to a plumbing malfunction (not without its own irony, being as this is the Livery Church of the Worshipful Company of Plumbers) causing the radiators to be out of action.

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

I took myself on a perambulation of the church as there was much to see, and within a couple of minutes I was warmly encouraged to join the congregation in the crypt for refreshments.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Coffee? Try freely-flowing wine, red and white, hot hors d'oeuvres, cheese, pate, and home-made cake. No cup of fair trade and soggy digestives 'round these parts. I have never in my life been to such an extensive and delicious after-service refreshment.

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

9 — The community of this church is unfailingly warm, understanding and welcoming – not something that can always be said of churches in this tradition. The preaching was excellent. The singing was sublime. The rituals were reverent and polished. The refreshments were a veritable buffet. But, goodness me, even for this worshipper, who is of high-church sensibilities, the private pronouncements of confession and absolution felt rather Roman.

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


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

Many things, but I hope I will be allowed to indulge in two: first, the sidesman lighting a full candlelit chandelier before the service began (I'm sure I've never seen this done outside of Downton Abbey); and the high-profile of the churchwardens in their brown and gold robes leading the altar party into the church.

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