Mystery Worshipper: Acton Bell
Church: St Paul's Cathedral
Location: City of London
Date of visit: Thursday, 28 November 2013, 11:00am
What to say that hasn't already been said so much more eloquently? Let me focus instead on the American presence there, since this was, after all, the American Thanksgiving service. For more than a century St Paul's has had a special relationship with America. In 1903, the financial icon J. Pierpont Morgan donated funds to bring electricity to the cathedral. The Jesus Chapel, an area behind the high altar, was damaged during World War II and was rebuilt as a memorial to the 28,000 American men and women who died in the defense of Britain. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, in the period before he became President, commissioned a roll of honor commemorating the dead to whose memory the chapel was intended as a memorial; the roll is in the form of a giant book, a page of which is turned each day.
Since so much ink has already been committed to paper concerning the cathedral and its ministries, let me instead say something about the American International Church in London, whose pastor was one of the guest officiants at today's service. They are an interdenominational church made up of Americans, Brits, and people from more than 20 countries, and are housed in a Georgian dissenters' church, Whitefields Tabernacle, on Tottenham Court Road. The church offers a full program of children's and young adults' ministries, prayer groups, and an outreach to the homeless and hungry, as well as other activities such as a vibrant arts program.
St Paul's is located in the City of London, the historic center of London, the square mile area from which modern London springs. Home to almost all of the world's major financial institutions, the City is to Britain what Wall Street is to America, and most, if not all, major American financial institutions are heavily represented. In fact, the American banking presence in London is as large as if not larger than at home because of the UK's lighter regulatory profile.
The Revd Barry Gaeddert, senior pastor, the International Community Church, Surrey; the Revd John A. D'Elia, senior minister, the American International Church, the Revd Canon Mark Oakley, canon chancellor in residence; the College of Canons; several virgers; the Hon. Matthew Winthrop Barzun, Ambassador of the United States to the Court of St James's; a color guard of United States Marines.
What was the name of the service?The Thanksgiving Day Service for the American Community in London
How full was the building?
I imagine about as full as the place gets for these kinds of services. Impossible to count, but someone nearby suggested that there were slightly more than 2500 people there.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes. There was a phalanx of smartly turned out American ladies, smiling and handing out the order of service booklets, wishing all and sundry a very enthusiastic happy Thanksgiving.
Was your pew comfortable?
They were the regular chairs in St Paul's, which don't invite settling in for the long haul. I was lucky enough to be very near the front, where, much like first class on an airplane, there was slightly more space between seats than in the rear.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Getting a giant hoard seated in a timely manner is never a quiet affair, is it? And, of course, sound acts in unpredictable ways in the cathedral, as the dome makes for interesting acoustics. It was pretty darn loud. There were the usual chairs scraping, babies crying, hustle and bustle, but one thing I was truly grateful for was the fact that security was handled by St Paul's rather than the Embassy, which is well known for being aggressive. Nobody wants airport-style patdowns before going to church I don't care who you are or what you're into.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Dear friends, welcome to the cathedral church as we come together in the name of Jesus Christ."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
A very comprehensive service bulletin. Decent card stock and layout.
What musical instruments were played?
The organ. The service also featured the combined choirs of the American congregations, who were quite competent, if a little hard to hear. Musically, it was sort of all over the place, with Copland and Adler and even something rather insensitively labeled a "Negro spiritual" in the bulletin.
Did anything distract you?
I think St Paul's was designed to tempt one into distraction, like some cruel ecclesiastical joke. Whenever I attend a service there, I find myself behaving like a toddler, with my eye wandering off when not immediately engaged. St Paul's itself and these big services always border on sensory overload. I did find my eye wandering (repeatedly) to one of the canons, who looked to be dozing off during the sermon, and I couldn't help myself anticipating the tell-tale head bob.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The service was a strange sort of Anglican/American evangelical liturgical hybrid and I think one of those mix and matches that makes neither tier of the candle very happy. It opened with the combined choirs offering up some "American" hymns, none of which this American had ever heard! The opening hymn was that old chestnut "Come, ye thankful people, come", to the tune of St George's Windsor. The bidding and Lord's Prayer were followed by a really grim and atonal anthem. Then came lessons, the receiving of gifts, a proclamation by President Barack Obama (read by the ambassador), a litany of thanksgiving (a truncated version from Common Worship), sermon and blessing. The choir tried to put on a happy-clappy face during one of the spirituals, much to the amusement of the congregation! We should be thankful it wasn't "Shine Jesus Shine", I suppose.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – Pastor Barry Gaeddert seemed a bit more Protestant than I'm used to. He was competent and engaging, but I'm always uncomfortable with emotional appeals from the pulpit. He spoke about the recent loss of his wife, but how his faith allowed him to continue to give thanks.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Riffing on the reading from Colossians 2:6-10 (our lives should overflow with thankfulness to Christ), he argued that we, like the Colossians, tend to hedge our bets, not fully believing that Christ is alone sufficient, not realizing that we don't really need much else. He linked this to Thanksgiving, saying that we are "outwardly thankful" once a year, but then we put that back into its box until the next Thanksgiving. This is where we fail. We need to make thankfulness more a part of our lives, much in the same way that we need to become more Christ-centered day-to-day.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The ambassador wished his mother, who was sitting with his family, a happy 70th birthday during his address. It was really very sweet, and she was visibly touched. And I know this is totally cornball, but I was very moved to see several misty-eyed people around me during the singing of "America the Beautiful". I hadn't quite expected that.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Why do Americans in the political classes feel the need to tell the date, time and place they found Jesus? Groan!
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
No chance of looking lost. The very efficient St Paul's ushers (who brook no nonsense in a very nice way, I might add) directed the flow of traffic with maximum efficiency. We were invited to see the American Chapel, and some headed to the crypt for the ambassador's Thanksgiving lunch.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Unfortunately I had to get back to the office, so couldn't attend the Thanksgiving dinner (a pint and curry for me!), but from what I gather it was the full traditional spread, with turkey, dressing, and cranberry sauce in the restaurant in the cathedral crypt. I was very sad I couldn't attend.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 – It would be strange and anonymous, I think, to make St Paul's my regular, but it certainly does the big events in a way that no other cathedral can.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes! It reminded me to give thanks for all of the wonderful friends I have in the UK, whose generosity, warmth and welcome have been so over-the-top and which I don't think I can possibly repay.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
What a perfect way to spend a Thanksgiving day, something I hadn't expected at all.