Mystery Worshipper: Jezebel's Sister
Church: St Martin-in-the-Fields
Location: Trafalgar Square, London
Date of visit: Sunday, 27 November 2011, 6:30pm
St Martin's is a grand baroque landmark in the north-east corner of Trafalgar Square. The current building dates from the 1720s, but there has been a church on this site since at least 500 years before then. Six columns support a portico, above which the tall steeple rises to 192 feet. The tower contains an acclaimed ring of 12 bells, which were ringing as we arrived for this service. The wide steps overlooking Trafalgar Square are a popular place for tourists to sit and watch the world go by. There's a fascinating sculpture on the porch depicting the baby Jesus, not fully separated from the massive block of rock from which he's carved. Inside the church, the walls are white with a blinding amount of gilt detailing. The pews are dark. There are galleries on two sides for congregational overflow, with the massive organ occupying the west gallery. The windows are light and bright. It's gorgeous.
There are many special things about this inclusive church. It's dedicated to St Martin of Tours, famously patron saint of soldiers and beggars (less famously of geese, horses, alcoholics and more). The church's legendary outreach to the homeless and hungry has gone on for more than 100 years. Its links with the Chinese community are very strong, as it is just around the corner from London's Chinatown. There are services in Mandarin and Cantonese every Sunday, and there is a strong Chinese involvement in the English congregation. It's also notable musically, presenting several concerts each week, at lunchtime and in the evenings, and the volunteer choir have travelled internationally and produced a couple of CDs. The church is often the venue for BBC broadcasts of musical acts of worship. Handel famously played here. Mozart allegedly played here. St Martin's also has strong links internationally with mission and development organisations.
Situated as it is on the corner of Trafalgar Square, neighbours include the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, Canada House and South Africa House, Nelson's Column, Leicester Square ... a long list of must-see attractions for any visitor to London are within a short stroll of the church. Buckingham Palace is in the parish, as is 10 Downing Street, the official residence of the Prime Minister.
The Most Revd Dr Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, preached. He also read one of his own poems and gave the blessing. The Revd Richard Carter presided. The choir of St Martin in the Fields was led by Andrew Earis, director of music, and accompanied by Martin Ford on organ and piano (not simultaneously). The former vicar of St Martin's was recently consecrated Bishop of Salisbury, so the church is in an interregnum at this time.
What was the name of the service?Advent Carol Service: Heaven in Ordinary
How full was the building?
I dont think they had to turn anyone away, but it was full, including the galleries, probably close to a thousand souls.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes. An army of stewards was ready, starting outside on the porch and continuing inside, ensuring that everyone was greeted and given the order of service.
Was your pew comfortable?
No. It was a hard old wooden pew. Normally there is enough standing, sitting and kneeling for that not to be a problem, but there was one stretch in this service where we sat and sat and sat, through three readings, four choir pieces, a poem, the intercessions, and the sermon. We all sang very enthusiastically when a hymn came along and we could stand!
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Chatty, expectant, cheerful. It was a very large crowd and a happy occasion.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"A very warm welcome to you to this our Advent service." The presiding priest went on to welcome especially visitors and those attending St Martin's for the first time. The lights were then dimmed, and the service itself started with an introit sung by the choir, out of sight at the back. The Archbishop read one of his own poems, also from the back of the nave. After that the choir and clergy processed to the front, singing the classic Advent opening hymn "O Come, O come, Emmanuel".
What books did the congregation use during the service?
A 14-page order of service contained all we needed.
What musical instruments were played?
Organ for everything except piano once. The president took the opportunity to deliver a couple of notices about forthcoming events and the Christmas appeal while the organist scurried back to the loft after the piano piece.
Did anything distract you?
I kept staring at the east window trying to work it out. It's meant to depict a cross as if under water, and there's an ovoid shape in the middle that was lit up against the dark sky. It must be electrified somehow. It is stunning, but quite distracting. I think this was the first time I had seen it in full darkness.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Joyous. Neither stiff nor happy clappy. Proper Anglican carol service with the extra benefit of an esteemed preacher in a stunning location.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
10 – The Archbishop has such a beautiful voice, and he spoke from the heart, I think. I couldn't see any notes. His enunciation is impeccable. He was vested simply, not in episcopal finery, and that made it even better, more intimate, despite the size of the congregation.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Archbishop Rowan started by talking about the "four last things": death, judgement, heaven and hell, and how different these are from our associations with the Christmas season: cards, turkey, presents, etc. But all the last things are about tomorrow, and in Advent we are having our eyes opened here and now. The theme of the service was "Heaven in Ordinary", from a poem by George Herbert; the readings had all been linked to that theme, and the Archbishop kept returning to it in his sermon. The best part was when he talked about death, and our reaction to the inevitability of it if we accept it with grace, that's heaven, but if we deny it and fight it, that makes life hell. In the end it was about seeing the world as "pregnant with life" and I couldn't help linking that to the egg shape in the window and the baby sculpture on the porch. It was the perfect sermon for the place and the occasion.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The music the choir was lovely and there is such joy when we come round to singing the lovely Advent carols again.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
As mentioned earlier, the long stretch of just sitting was uncomfortable, and during the sermon we were sitting almost underneath the raised pulpit, so we could hear the Archbishop but we had to perform contortions to see him. That was bad planning on our part.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
The Archbishop and the other clergy were available at the back of the church for a handshake. The stewards and marshals were as friendly to people on the way out as they had been on the way in.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
We didn't find out, but from the way the announcement was made I think the caf was open for business, rather than offering hospitality.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
10 – I would love to but I am committed to my own church, and it's a bit of a distance to come. But this is a special place, with a strong congregation as well as a constant stream of visitors, many of whom are regulars as well. It's unique. I have been before and will come again.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. And glad that it's Advent.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The poetry: the Herbert poem that set the theme, the Archbishop's own poem at the beginning, and the Carol Ann Duffy (Britain's current Poet Laureate) poem in the middle.