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, 6 July 2014, 11:00am

The building

The current building is one of 53 churches built/rebuilt by Christopher Wren after the Great Fire of London in 1666. Its history, architecture and appointments are impressive and cannot be summarized in a short paragraph – guidebooks and the church's own website speak with much better authority than I ever could. Let me just say that the tomb of Miles Coverdale, who in 1535 produced the first complete English translation of the Bible, was relocated here in 1840, and the church is said to be haunted by the figure of a monk in cassock and cowl, with long black hair but no face, who has been seen staring at Coverdale's tomb.

The church

It has a long history and association with the neighbouring trades of this part of London. It is the guild church of the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers and of the Worshipful Company of Plumbers. The Church of St Magnus the Martyr is well known for its high liturgical standards in the Anglo-Catholic vein.

The neighborhood

A church has existed on this site for over 1000 years. For centuries it sat literally at the foot of the old London Bridge, where all people crossing the Thames entered the city. Now it is nearly dwarfed by the modern London skyline.

The cast

The celebrant and preacher was not identified, but the Revd J Philip Warner, cardinal rector, assisted.

What was the name of the service?

Solemn High Mass.

How full was the building?

It looked about half-full, with 32 in attendance.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

A priest (but not on staff) shook my hand and asked if I was staying for the service or just looking around (Wren churches must get a lot of fans – are they called Wrenies? – just looking around). When he learned I was staying, he urged me to come downstairs afterwards for lunch, if possible, or just a beverage and cookies.

Was your pew comfortable?

Not very.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Fairly quiet, but not very reverential. People used quiet voices, not whispers, to visit.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

The celebrant intoned the beginning of the Asperges: "Asperges me." Then the choir chanted the remainder: "Domine hyssopo et mundabor", etc. (You will sprinkle me, o Lord, with hyssop and I shall be made clean) as the celebrant sprinkled the congregation with holy water.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

An eight-page bulletin and the English Hymnal.

What musical instruments were played?

The organ, about which I can tell you nothing, although it sounded great!

Did anything distract you?

Knowing it was a Wren church, I allowed myself to be distracted by its features: the massive dark wood wall behind the altar, the graceful white columns, the black and white marble floor, the stained glass windows, especially St Magnus holding a replica of his red stone cathedral in Kirkwall, and St Thomas Becket holding a portion of his own head!

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

Very formal, very high church. Much ceremony, much incense, ornate vestments, black birettas donned and removed several times during the service. I felt transported back to the 1950s Roman Catholic masses of my youth.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

10 minutes.

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

5 – I'd call the preacher, whose name was not given, just middle of the road. His message was fine, but his delivery was nondescript.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The importance of our dependence on God and avoiding the hubris of independence. Both God's gift – love – and our role in the relationship – accepting God's love – are quite simple.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The choir were heavenly. Only two male voices (due to some absences), but they filled the nave.

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

As an American Episcopalian, I'm used to a more participatory role during worship. I felt like a passive role of observer: the choir did most of the singing (the congregation sang the offertory hymn and a hymn just before the Angelus after mass). The words of the consecration were not printed in the bulletin, so it felt like the priest (with his back to the congregation) was the only one actually celebrating.

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

I didn't have to hang around, thanks to a friendly parishioner (a shout out to Mike!) making conversation and escorting me downstairs.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

I was told the usual fare is biscuits/crisps and tea. But because the congregation was celebrating the 30th anniversary of the cardinal rector's ordination, we feasted on wine, chicken salad, couscous salad, sliced tomatoes, trifle, cheesecake, meringue with fruit coulis, brie and crackers. I had lovely conversations with several friendly folk.

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

4 – Despite the warm and sincere welcome extended, St Magnus would be too traditional for me.

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

Yes, even with my discomfort with the traditional practices. I felt like a comrade-in-the-faith at St Magnus. I hope that's what being a Christian is all about: not how we worship but whom we worship, and how we live the gospel.

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

The hospitality and fellowship extended to a stranger. St Magnus lives its historical and contemporary mission: befriending visitors and pilgrims on their faith journeys.

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