Mystery Worshipper: Wes Charles
Church: St Martin-in-the-Fields
Location: Trafalgar Square, London
Date of visit: Sunday, 25 March 2018, 10:00am
A neoclassical masterpiece, one of the most famous churches in London, built between 1721 and 1726 replacing earlier structures. It is an imposing building overlooking Trafalgar Square. There has been a church on this site since at least 1222, when the first extant reference to it can be found in writing. Literally "in the fields," i.e. in the wide open spaces, at the time of Henry VIII, it gradually became crowded in by other buildings until Trafalgar Square was laid out in the early 19th century. Inside, a particularly impressive feature is the east window, designed in 2008 by Iranian artist Shirazeh Houshiary to replace the previous window damaged by World War II bombs. At first glance it looks warped, but in actuality it depicts an abstract, distorted cross.
St Martin-in-the-Fields is the parish church of the Royal Family. The church is particularly known for its work with the homeless. In addition, there are regular concerts in the church by professional musicians, often by candlelight, which I guess brings in plenty of tourists. Jazz concerts are held in the crypt, which also contains a restaurant and shop. There are plenty of opportunities for the public to come in and engage with St Martin's.
Located at the north-east corner of Trafalgar Square, St Martin's is right in the centre of London. Most buildings nearby are either commercial or government. It overlooks the National Gallery.
The Revd Dr Sam Wells, vicar of St Martin's, was the celebrant. He was assisted by members of the St Martin's Sunday International Group, the Nazareth Community, and the congregation of St Martin's, dramatising the Passion.
What was the name of the service?Parish Eucharist with Palm Sunday Procession.
How full was the building?
Downstairs was pretty full, but there was no one in the galleries. I guess a couple of hundred people in total.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
An usher asked me not to stand where I was standing as I'd be in the way of the donkey – but more on that later. As I nipped in to get a service sheet, a friendly lady asked if I was there for the service. I replied that I was, and promptly returned to find my three-year-old daughter engaged with the donkey!
Was your pew comfortable?
It was a pew. I got one of the last spots not obstructed by a pillar, which was good. Although we came in pretty late (again, more later!) we were in the second row!
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
I don't know about inside the church, but the atmosphere outside was unusual, with several thousand runners on the London Landmarks Half Marathon jogging past the church.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
I don't know – we weren't there. Perhaps it's time to explain a little more. The service started at 9.45 in the church. At the same time, on the opposite corner of Trafalgar Square where it joins St James' Park, the Salvation Army Band struck up with the choir singing. There was also a donkey carrying baskets of palm crosses. There were about three people gathered on the steps of the church, including us, waiting for the procession to arrive. On a normal Sunday this might have been fine. However, as previously mentioned, there was a half-marathon today, which started just down the road. There were road blocks, crowds of spectators, and literally thousands of runners beginning their 20-km trek around London. Unfortunately, the timings didn't work out and the poor donkey got delayed. It was stood, with choir and band, on the far side of a crossing point of the half-marathon, and had to wait for a suitable gap in the traffic, finally arriving at church 15 minutes late!
What books did the congregation use during the service?
A printed service book containing everything we needed.
What musical instruments were played?
The organ, and a grand piano. The piano was played when the choir were singing some choir-only items, including a particularly moving rendition of "Benedictus" from Welsh composer Karl Jenkins' The Armed Man, or A Mass For Peace.
Did anything distract you?
The main feature of the service was a dramatisation of the Passion. It was particularly well done, and really showed some of the pain and anguish that Christ went through on Good Friday. However, it was a little too dramatic for my three-year-old, with some anger and light violence – particularly when Jesus was thrashed with palm branches hard enough for dust to fly into the air. She looked concerned at times, then went back to the sticker book that was keeping her quiet. Her reaction, and my concern for her, was the principal distraction.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Other than the modern production of the Passion, it was very traditional. During the Passion dramatisation, a particularly powerful moment occurred when the actor playing Jesus was “crucified” standing on the altar, beneath the distorted cross on the beautiful east window. The whole production was excellent, and when the congregation had to join in shouting “Crucify him!” it was an important reminder that had we been alive at the time, we'd probably have been shouting the same thing. I thought I detected some theological licence at times, particularly when Judas returned the money to the Pharisees, but I may have misheard.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
There was no sermon. The dramatisation of the Passion was probably about 20-25 minutes in total.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Definitely the play, which was very well done and really quite moving. It was interesting that, as far as I remember, the cast were in modern dress with the exception of Jesus. Judas being portrayed by a woman was also interesting, and Mary's tears as Jesus was crucified were very powerful.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Having to wait for the donkey to cross a road for the service to start was certainly unusual. Other than that, I'd say the loud electronic buzz coming from the speaker near us. I wondered if it was about to break, and whether the vicar would have to shout the eucharistic prayer to be heard by the whole congregation. But as it turned out, the speaker kept going and all was well in the end.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
We didn't – Miss Charles had been very patient during the service but was beginning to get grumpy, so we left with the crowds and headed for her favourite little bistro for an early lunch.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
I don't know what people did. There's a café in the crypt and I saw a few people heading down there, so perhaps that was the after-service coffee. If so, I've had it before and it's very good. Perhaps they served some in the church too, but there was no mention of it from the vicar.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 — I actually enjoyed it more than I expected to, as my home church is more modern and evangelical than St Martin's.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, definitely. It really made me reflect on the fact that we're no different from the Jews who condemned Jesus to death at the time. We go along with popular opinion about all kinds of things, and I have no doubt that, had I been there, I'd have shouted “Crucify him!” with the crowds – a humbling thought that Jesus died an agonising and humiliating death for me.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The donkey waiting to cross the road!