The Chapel of St Mary Undercroft, Palace of Westminster, London

The Chapel of St Mary Undercroft, Palace of Westminster, London


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: The Chapel of St Mary Undercroft
Location: Palace of Westminster, London
Date of visit: Wednesday, 7 April 2010, 12:45pm

The building

The 13th century undercroft chapel is, in a word, ornate. From the patterned tile floor to the stained glass windows, and from the elaborately painted, vaulted ceilings and roof bosses to the polished, hanging lanterns, it's a visual feast of high Victorian neo-Gothic decoration. The chapel entrance is in a far corner of Westminster Hall. Its decorations were restored following the fire of 1834 when much of the old Palace of Westminster was destroyed, but its underground location saved it from structural damage.

The church

This is a private chapel, located underneath St Stephen's Hall, which now contains the souvenir shop patronised by groups touring the Houses of Parliament. Originally, the chapel was set aside for worship by members of the court and royal household, but is used nowadays by Members of Parliament for family weddings and christenings, while St Margaret's, across the road in the grounds of Westminster Abbey, is used for larger parliamentary services.

The neighborhood

The chapel is contained in the Houses of Parliament, so it's fascinating. Westminster Abbey is across the street, and the Thames runs behind it. Suffice to say, it is in the underbelly of arguably the most important building in Britain.

The cast

Canon Robert Wright, Chaplain to the Speaker of the House of Commons, presided, assisted by a verger who looked like he might have come from Westminster Abbey, where Canon Wright is Sub-Dean. He is also Rector of St Margaret's, Westminster, the "parish church of parliament".

What was the name of the service?

Service of Thanksgiving at the End of this Parliament for the Members Leaving the House of Commons

How full was the building?

About 30 people, maybe, in a chapel that could have seated more than 200 comfortably.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

A woman was handing out orders of service at the door, and then a man walked around dealing out laminated cards containing the liturgy of the eucharist.

Was your pew comfortable?

Seating was in rows of joined-up wooden chairs, with newish-looking individual red cushions that weren't fastened to the chairs, so they slipped around a bit, but were soft. Those cushions were the only thing in the room that were not decorated in a fancy pattern, having just one single central button for ornamentation.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

The organ was playing at the back of the chapel while people gathered. There were quite a few people alone, so I didn't feel too conspicuous, and those who were in pairs or groups were murmuring quietly.

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?

A folded, single-sheet order of service for the event.

What musical instruments were played?

The organ was played by Richard Pearce.

Did anything distract you?

The bonging of Big Ben, right in the middle of the eucharistic prayer.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

Simple and unpretentious, considering the location and despite the decor. There were two hymns, but it was essentially a said eucharist. The prayers were directed at the purpose of the service, to bid farewell to the Members of Parliament who won’t be returning after the General Election in a month’s time, either by choice or bad luck at the ballot box.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

There was no sermon.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The sheer opulence of the chapel: the reds and golds, the profusion and confusion of it all.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

Feeling sad that there weren't (a lot) more people there.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

A number of people were greeting each other, but under the circumstances, I didn't hang about.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Lunch on the terrace overlooking the Thames... except it was raining and I had to go. Aside from that, no refreshments were provided.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

5 – Giving it a 5 is a non-answer. I'd dearly love a chapel like that to pray in, but if it means being an MP, it's a non-starter.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

Yes, and I liked the idea that our elected leaders have that resource available to them.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

The beauty of the chapel.

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