Hard by the towering facades of Westminster Abbey is this much smaller church, dedicated to St Margaret of Antioch, that was originally built to serve the residents of the vicinity and visitors to the Benedictine Abbey of Westminster and its Shrine of St Edward the Confessor, Saint and King of England 1042-1066. Pilgrims and visitors were invited to hear mass at St Margaret’s, the gateway chapel to the Abbey, which was just outside the monks’ enclosure. The first structure, in the Romanesque style, dated from about the 12th century. It was replaced in the late 14th century by a building in the Perpendicular style, which over the years became quite dilapidated and was almost completely reconstructed in the late 15th century. Consecrated in 1523 and restored several times since then, it is that structure that one sees today. The interior features several memorials ranging from simple plaques to elaborate statues, some historic stained glass, and Tudor features of interest to visitors put off by the long queues and stiff entrance fees of its next door neighbour.
Now fully part of the Abbey administration, St Margaret’s has lost its residential population but holds regular services and is a ‘Royal Peculiar’ – that is to say, outside the jurisdiction of the Bishop of London and answerable only to the Governor of the Church of England, namely HM Queen Elizabeth. There is not much of a residential community at all, apart from the Clergy at Westminster Abbey who live in cloistered seclusion on the opposite side of the Abbey, and the schoolboys of the Abbey school who live on the school premises. Since 1641, when the whole House of Commons took communion together on Palm Sunday, St Margaret’s has served as the parish church of the House. Since 1681, the Speaker of the House of Commons has had the sole use of the front pew opposite the lectern. Holy Communion is held each Sunday evening; Morning Prayer and Holy Communion also follow a somewhat irregular weekday schedule.
Adjacent to St Margaret’s are the Palace of Westminster, home to the Houses of Lords and Commons; the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom; the Treasury; and other government offices. St Margaret’s is surrounded by the institutions of government, and as a result the funerals and memorial services to politicians are often held in the church. There are many, many tourists in the area – even off-season and on chilly days. And on Saturdays it is a favourite destination for political demonstrations, often of the noisy sort.
The vicar of St Margaret’s framed the event with short liturgies, and the guest speaker did the rest of the talking.
What was the name of the service?32nd Annual Day of Contemplative Prayer.
How full was the building?
About 35 people, plus an unspecified number following the live stream from home.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes, two vergers welcomed me and offered a copy of the order of service, which contained all we needed.
Was your pew comfortable?
Moderately. Given that we were there for longer than the usual length of service, a cushion would have been welcome. There were kneelers, but these were chained to prevent removal by souvenir hunters and the chains were not long enough for the kneelers to be placed on the seat of the pew (I tried).
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
What were the exact opening words of the service?
‘Seek the Lord while he is found; call upon him while he is near.’ (Isaiah 55:6)
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The three short liturgies seemed to have been extracted from Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer in Common Worship. The addresses by the guest speaker were supported by quotations and images projected onto a screen.
What musical instruments were played?
Did anything distract you?
A boisterous demonstration was taking place in Whitehall nearby and we could hear chanting; worse was the thrumming of a police surveillance helicopter circling incessantly overhead, to keep an eye on the demonstration. There is something very disturbing about helicopter noise and it didn't help the atmosphere of our day.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was something of a one-off: three short liturgies, with three addresses by the guest speaker that were somewhere between a lecture, sermon, and a how-to talk. The atmosphere throughout was quiet and contemplative – the clue is in the title of the event
Exactly how long was the sermon?
Each of the three addresses was about 40 minutes.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 — The speaker was accomplished, speaking in a slow measured voice that was comforting without being soporific, and supported by an excellent sound system. As he introduced his own spiritual journey into the day, it is relevant to say (without mentioning his name as per MW rules) that he was raised in Italy as a Roman Catholic, and after an adolescent atheist phase entered a Benedictine monastery as a 19 year old. Moving to a French abbey, he rose to become abbot. Later he completed a doctorate under Rowan Williams and two years ago was received into the Church of England, where he is now serving a curacy in a central London parish. His 25 years of contemplative prayer in various settings informed the project at hand. I don’t often come across a speaker who can engage with deep and complex spirituality in such an accessible manner.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The first address was around the theme of lectio divina – sacred reading – as an aid to contemplative prayer. Benedictines see this as four stages: reading, meditation, prayer, and contemplation. He illustrated it by reference to modern writers and spoke eloquently of the obstacles modern life sets in its way. The second address was about mindfulness, which he used in the sense borrowed from Buddhist tradition and a currently fashionable cure-all. His appreciation of it was profound. The final address brought together the two earlier themes. The speaker addressed the practice and aspirations of the Desert Fathers, the theological idea of nepsis (wakefulness or watchfulness, a struggle against the corruption of the passions), and the distractions to spirituality of logismoi (evil thoughts giving rise to sinful behaviour), and compared them all to mindfulness practice (being fully aware of one’s surroundings without being overwhelmed), seeing them as parts of a process of opening one’s awareness to God in a truly open, contemplative way.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Most of it.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
It was a chilly January day and the temperature in the church was a tad below the comfort point (though I had dressed warmly in anticipation). I would have stayed much longer to meditate and contemplate if I hadn't been concerned about catching a chill.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
People drifted away in ones and twos, which was slightly anti-climactic. The service of refreshments (which is how this annual day usually ends) was ruled out by government pandemic regulations and this might have meant a more focussed ending. I am also a real sucker for collective silence, just love it, so I missed the fact there wasn't much of this at the end – especially after such inspiring addresses.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 — I shall definitely look out for next year's Annual Day of Contemplative Prayer.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Definitely. I went straight home and practiced some mindfulness, then read through the notes I had made from the address on lectio divina – allowing the second to feed off the first – then filed this report.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The connections between Buddhist practice and the Desert Fathers in their self-imposed fastness.