Mystery Worshipper: Ken T Poste
Church: St Michael's Chester Square
Location: Belgravia, London
Date of visit: Saturday, 14 January 2017, 10:30am
The large building is surprisingly well hidden behind the main road. When coming from the right direction, though, one sees that it dominates the south end of Chester Square. Decorated in the late Gothic style to a design by Thomas Cundy, who designed many of the churches and houses in the nearby area, it is built out of Kentish ragstone, giving a distinctly grey appearance. Inside, it is a mixture of the old and new, with some lovely stained glass in the chancel, though this was hidden for half the service by a projector screen that was suspended from the ceiling. The walls were painted in a distinctive peach/salmon colour.
They run regular Alpha courses. This is not surprising, as the vicar, the Revd Charles Marnham, was the person who first began the Alpha course in 1977 when he was a curate at the nearby Holy Trinity, Brompton. They also stressed a forthcoming marriage course for couples who are already engaged. There was a strong emphasis on family and childrens work, as the church had quite a large proportion of under 10s in the congregation.
Chester Square is one of the more exclusive areas of the already very exclusive area of Belgravia. Notable residents have included the likes of Margaret Thatcher; Mary Shelley; Yehudi Menuhin; Russian billionaire businessman Roman Abramovich, owner of the Chelsea Football Club; and television personality Nigella Lawson.
The service was mostly led by the curate, the Revd Guy Axelson, who also presided over communion. The sermon was given by the vicar, the Revd Preb. Charles Marnham. The organ was played by Tom Bell (whose last Sunday at the church is next Sunday, before he moves to the role as a director for the Royal College of Organists). Prayers were led by Tricia Marnham, and the readings were given by Grace Wort and Felicity Hunt.
What was the name of the service?Holy Communion.
How full was the building?
It was fairly full, with about 150 people present. The congregation were made up of a varied mix of ages and ethnicities.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
As I approached the large glass door, someone on the inside opened it for me, said hello, and handed me a sheet of paper. After I took my seat, the vicar came over to shake my hand and introduce himself; he seemed to be on the lookout for anyone new and seemed to want personally to greet as many people as he could.
Was your pew comfortable?
We had chairs that were linked together solidly. They had the appearance of being padded, but that appearance was most deceptive, as they were not in the least bit comfortable. The rows were squeezed together quite tightly, so that those with long legs had to sit slightly askew.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
There was a fair buzz about the place, as people greeted one another and caught up on the goings on in each others' lives over the last week. This was added to by the extra hubbub of a number of children who had free reign over the space. Though as the start of the service got closer, the organist started playing. At first, it was relatively quiet, but it got louder and louder, almost as though the organist was trying to drown out the conversations and get people to shut up.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Well, welcome to St Michael's Chester Square. It's good to see you."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
We had a little white booklet with this week's liturgy in it. Inside this was tucked a blue notice sheet. The pew Bibles (which all looked very new/unused) were the New International Version. Some of the songs were shown on a screen that was suspended from the ceiling, while others had their lyrics printed in the liturgy booklet.
What musical instruments were played?
For the most part, it was just the organ being played. Though there was one section of the service that was led by someone playing a guitar, accompanied by some drums played from within a see-through box.
Did anything distract you?
I could tell there was some stained glass in the chancel, but with it being blocked off by the projector screen, I kept trying to peer around the side.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
There was something here for everyone. There were elements of low church with some aspects of high church brought in. It could make for a bit a mess, but it all hung together quite nicely. Some hymns were older, some were more modern. The clergy wore white surplices over their clerical shirts.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – The Revd Charles speaks with the most marvelous voice. Hes slightly posh, but he has a rich, mellifluous quality that would not be out of place in the theatre. In fact, his intonation reminded me somewhat of the actor Michael Gambon.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The church is starting a series of sermons based around a book by American pastor Bill Hybels called Too Busy Not To Pray. This sermon was entitled "God is willing." Taking Matthew 7:7-12 ("Ask and it will be given to you") as his key text, he began with an anecdote whose link to the main message was, unfortunately, lost on me. The rest of the sermon was really about God's character and that the reason he is willing to listen to our prayers is not because of anything we do, but because of who he is. Comparing to Luke 18:1-6 (the parable of the persistent widow), we mustn't get the mistaken idea that God gives us blessings reluctantly from a closed fist due to our persistence. If prayers are not answered, particularly prayers for healings, it is entirely wrong ever to tell someone that their prayers weren't strong enough.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
As we went up for communion, a choir, who had hitherto not made their presence heard throughout the service, began singing from an elevated position at the back of the church. They sang most beautifully.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
There was a section of the service that was dubbed all age worship that had songs with actions. It's good fun for the youngsters, but I'm a bit too curmudgeonly to enjoy songs with actions.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I grabbed a cup of coffee and had a little wander around. The walls had a few memorials, including one that stated "Erected by his wife" that I couldn't help but smile at. A couple of people came over to say hello. One chap tried to engage me in conversation but was too distracted by his toddler daughter leading others astray, as several of the children were playing with the communion rail. Another chap wanted to shake my hand about every two minutes.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
I was warned by the person serving it that it was a bit strong. Served in a plain mug, it certainly was strong; it was excellent!
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – I found it a healthy mixture of church styles. Unusual for an Anglican church, but it's the kind of Anglicanism I could potentially call home.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The choir who appeared out of nowhere and tingled my spine.