St Martin Gospel Oak, London


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Martin Gospel Oak
Location: London
Date of visit: Sunday, 22 September 2019, 10:30am

The building

The architecture of St Martin's is known as Rogue Gothic – a school of the 19th century Gothic Revival that set out to break the rules. Rather than seeking authentically to recreate medieval Gothic, St Martin’s has rogue tendencies aplenty, from its thin knobby tower to the fact that the church is almost as wide as it is long. The roof is a riot of elaboration in timber and the columns start as square and plain before sprouting mini-columns on all sides, like a tree. You either like this kind of architecture or hate it – I love it. Clearly there was a generous budget – the church was built in 1864 at the expense of a wealthy glove manufacturer – and the 19th century British architect EB Lamb, the bad boy of Rogue Gothic, whom Nikolaus Pevsner called ‘the most original though certainly not the most accomplished architect of his day,’ decided to have himself some fun!

The church

The website suggests the church has an active parish life in this densely built area of Camden, with several activities listed.

The neighborhood

Finding St Martin’s is not easy. A railway line to the north of the church cuts off most routes, and to the south a maze of semi-pedestrianised 1960s housing is difficult to navigate. Several signposts directed me to health centre, shops, street market, etc. – but none to the parish church and its hall. The extensive area of social housing is now undergoing partial regeneration – i.e. wholesale rebuilding.

The cast

The vicar, a preacher whose name was not given in the service sheet, and four servers. The organist doubled up as a reader for one lesson.

What was the name of the service?

Parish Communion with Sunday School.

How full was the building?

When I walked in barely four minutes before start, there were just three in the pews. I thought I was in for a lonely morning, but this, thankfully, became 25 plus an altar party of five. Where had they come from? Perhaps some had been ringing the bells. The church could probably seat 300.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

The bells in the tall tower summoned me through the pedestrian maze of the housing scheme around the church, and two friendly greeters welcomed me in person inside the church door.

Was your pew comfortable?

A traditional pew, presumably the original from 1864. It was solid and comfortable.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?


What were the exact opening words of the service?

‘Good morning, everybody. Please stand, if you are able, to sing our first hymn.’ The disembodied voice over the PA turned out to be that of the vicar, who then processed in with her servers.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The service sheet of the day, with readings written out in full, and parish notices; Hymns Old and New – New Anglican Edition and a well thumbed service book.

What musical instruments were played?


Did anything distract you?

A member of the congregation made an entrance in a flamboyant flamenco style costume with multiple colours and bracelets, and sat down right in front. After a few moments in the pew, she threw off her fake fur and sat there in her bra. I did a double take – and though I was sitting behind her, I am pretty confident it was not a cocktail dress she was wearing. Either way, it was minimal. However you label the garment, it was ostentatiously inappropriate. One or two glanced her way, perhaps to see if the outfit crossed a line into unseemliness – it was a close call. Half way through, she put her coat on again, probably because it was a chilly autumnal morning. The lady occasionally made extravagant whole arm worship gestures, but mostly joined in the service and took communion. She gave the impression that she felt loved by God and at home at St Martin’s. After a disconcerting moment or two, I recognised that she was embraced by the congregation – at which point she ceased to be a distraction at all. There was, though, something wrong with the electrics in the vestry corner behind the organ console – a lights kept flashing on and off at random moments.

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

A Common Worship eucharist with a gospel procession and with most people crossing themselves at the appointed moments. But no incense and not really catholic in atmosphere – more like middle of the road with liturgical awareness. The children busied themselves drawing in the transept and were led into the hall next door at the start of the sermon for their Sunday school proper. They rejoined us at the end and were so well behaved.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

11 minutes.

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

7 — The preacher, who introduced himself as a theologian, had a challenging text to tackle: Luke 16:1-13, often known today as the Parable of the Dishonest Manager. It is quite a long passage. The preacher set out his reading of it in clear language (he may be a theologian but avoided the jargon so many theologians deploy, given half a chance). It was a well prepared piece of work.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The theologian-preacher admitted there is more than one way to read some aspects of the parable, but he did not confuse us with too much complexity. The parable has multiple and complex messages about faith and the interface between the material and the spiritual worlds. I don’t think St Martin's puts sermons on their website, as some churches do, but it was a moment when I wish they did, as this sermon was meaty and would have benefitted from a second hearing.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

Following communion, there was a Taizé chant in which we all joined, which was simple, prayerful, easy to sing and settling.

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

In contrast to the Taizé chant, the final hymn was a modern worship song that I felt struck every wrong note. The words ‘The trees of the fields shall clap their hands’ were endlessly repeated. This conjured in my mind a surreal landscape, or even a rather nasty dream. It just didn’t do it for me, musically or in terms of its intended message. And what was its intended message?

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

I would guess most of the small band of worshippers live fairly locally and are regulars. There was quite a bit of chat. Refreshments were on offer in the church hall, which looks on the outside like a Lady chapel as it is integral with the church. I hadn’t time to stay, but St Martins struck me as friendly. I spoke briefly to both the vicar and preacher.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

I can't say.

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

7 — It’s not my neck of the woods, but there was a lot to like about St Martin’s. Were it nearer, I would definitely return. One event not on the parish website, but mentioned in our service sheets, was that the Sub-Dean of Westminster Abbey would read TS Eliot’s ‘The Dry Salvages' that afternoon in between movements of a Beethoven string quartet played live. Had I not been otherwise engaged, I should have returned for that imaginative event too.

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


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

Trees trying to clap their hands – and the wonderful weird architecture of EB Lamb.

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