Commanding the end of one of London’s most exclusive residential squares, St Peter’s has a handsome Ionic portico and a neoclassical clock tower. Its architect, Henry Hakewill, is not a famous name, but was clearly very competent, and the church looks at home in its setting. Both church and square date from the 1820s. In 1987 a mentally ill person set light to St Peter’s, the arsonist apparently believing that it was a Roman Catholic church rather than an Anglican church in the catholic tradition. To judge from old photos, St Peter’s certainly had the candlesticks and lavish decoration to look the part, and though the arsonist was quite wrong about ecclesiastical jurisdiction, he knew how to whip up a good fire – the church was rapidly devastated. Reconstructed within the walls of the gutted church, the modern squarish interior is spacious and well-lit with two principal features: a large niche behind the open plan altar sanctuary covered in gold mosaic tiling, and a large organ, its clustered ranks of pipes spread across the whole west end of the church.
Their website describes them as ‘a vibrant and welcoming … inclusive church in the catholic tradition of the Church of England.’ Their ministries are listed on their website. I’ll just mention St Peter’s Poppets, (quoting from their website) a ‘relaxed play session for toddlers and all pre-school children.’ Although they still broadcast via YouTube, they are also open for public worship (reservations required), with weekday services on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and both holy communion and sung eucharist each Sunday. They will resume a family eucharist as of Palm Sunday.
Eaton Square originally comprised large six-storey houses, each the size of a small urban palace, inhabited by aristocrats, wealthy industrialists and bankers. In the 20th century it went down several notches socially, but in the post-war years has again become a highly desirable address, with new money (much of it from abroad) buying into this part of the capital. In her retirement Baroness Thatcher was a resident.
The vicar presided, a licensed lay minister preached, a cantor sang, and a thurifer made smoke.
What was the name of the service?Sung Eucharist.
How full was the building?
I think there were about 25 of us spaced out for social distancing, evenly dotted about the spacious church. There were also two online (only) services that morning for those who were still not confident about returning to physical church in a time of pandemic, when many churches are still closed except for online worship. Whether the small St Peter’s congregation in a time of pandemic is a local one from the ritzy neighbourhood of Belgravia, I was not able to work out; but there are good transport connections nearby at Victoria Station, so perhaps they are a gathered congregation of locals plus those who (like me) are from further afield.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
There was a friendly welcomer on duty who ticked off my name on the list. I had ‘booked’ a seat by e-mail in advance for the service, as required. One of the conditions for churches being allowed by the UK government to open for services in a time of pandemic lockdown is that they compile contact details of everyone present. This is in case there is a need to track them down with a virus alert.
Was your pew comfortable?
It was a modern pew and very comfortable.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The pre-service atmosphere was informal, with everyone standing and quietly chatting at a distance through face masks. It is quite possible that this face-to-face conversation is the only one some people have had all week with those outside their household. A couple of minutes before time, everyone sat down and fell silent. I wondered if the chattiness was the usual atmosphere or one born of the isolating circumstances of the pandemic.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
'In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.'
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Just the order of service, which was well laid out and clear to follow.
What musical instruments were played?
None. The very conspicuous organ at the back of the church stayed silent, and there was no choir in the choir stalls either – choirs and congregational singing being prohibited under government lockdown regulations. A solo cantor with a beautiful contralto voice sang an introit and a plainsong setting of the mass.
Did anything distract you?
A giant niche of gold mosaic behind the altar forms a charismatic focal point to the worship space. At its centre is a small tabernacle for the reservation of the Sacrament, and around that a mosaic design that looks at first sight like a tsunami about to engulf the tabernacle. But was it supposed to represent the Pentecostal fire – a more appropriate piece of imagery? I concluded it looked far more like two giant waves. Such distractions were fleeting and occasional.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was a modern catholic service: eucharistic, solemn, incense but no frills. The pared-back service ordained by UK government pandemic regulations had a Cistercian austerity that suited the white modern interior of the church rather well.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
6 — I think the licensed lay reader was reading the sermon from a prepared text, rather than preaching it.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The preacher stuck to a meditation on the gospel reading (John 12:20-33 – Jesus speaks of his impending death) and Christ's preparation for his death, which in John's narrative is a more solitary journey of obedience than in the synoptic gospels.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The cantor had a beautiful voice that was complemented by the church’s clear bright acoustic, so the sung parts of the mass hit the spot.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Nothing was hellish, but I noticed that my pew slid slightly on the highly polished stone floor when I sat down, which was somewhat disconcerting.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
We were asked not to hang around in the church, but if we wanted to socialise to do so outside. Fortunately it was a fine day and some members of the congregation loitered to chat in the forecourt. The vicar immediately spotted me as a visitor, and chatted and talked to me about the rural parish to which he is moving next month.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
None was on offer in these socially-distanced times.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 — If it were nearer to my part of the metropolis, that would be an 8 or 9.
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 familiarity and stateliness of the liturgy in this time of plague.