The Chapel of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, London

The Chapel of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, London


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Mystery Worshipper: Zerubbabel
Church: The Chapel of the Royal Hospital
Location: Chelsea, London
Date of visit: Sunday, 9 May 2010, 11:00am

The building

The Royal Hospital Chelsea is a retirement and nursing home for British soldiers who are unfit for further duty due to injury or old age. Christopher Wren's original design envisioned a single quadrangle, known as Figure Court, surrounded on two sides by the accommodation blocks and on a third by the great hall and chapel. Work began in 1681. In 1686 Wren's design was modified to include new quadrangles on each flank, now known as Light Horse and College Courts. All was completed by 1687. The chapel rises 42 feet high and is long and vaulted, with a black and white tiled floor. Rows of pews face each other, choir-fashion. The altar is backed by dark wood panelling featuring classical columns. A fine painting of the Resurrection in the half dome of the apse by the Italian Baroque master Sebastiano Ricci dominates the east end.

The church

There are just over 300 soldiers resident in the Royal Hospital; these are referred to as in-pensioners (or, more colloquially, as Chelsea pensioners). The first ever televised church service in Great Britain was broadcast from the chapel in 1949. In 2002 Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II presented the Sovereign's Mace to the hospital; the Mace is carried in all ceremonial events. A frequent member of the congregation is the Rt Hon. the Baroness Thatcher LG, OM, PC, FRS (or, more colloquially, Maggie). Services are held on Sunday mornings, with choral matins and a shortened service of holy communion immediately following.

The neighborhood

Chelsea, in southwest London, is part of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. Always a popular location for the wealthy, and once described as "a village of palaces", the area remained relatively rural until the mid 19th century. In the 1960s Chelsea was known as the epicentre of Cool Britannia, with the Rolling Stones buying up rows of houses and Bob Marley taking up residence there. Today, the comfortable squares off King's Road are home to the English military establishment, investment bankers and film stars. Each year the Chelsea Flower Show is held on the hospital grounds.

The cast

The Revd Richard H. Whittington, chaplain.

What was the name of the service?

Choral Matins (for the London Festival of Contemporary Church Music)

How full was the building?

A goodly number were gathered – around 100, perhaps a few more.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

An in-pensioner, replete with red coat, handed me the books.

Was your pew comfortable?

Yes, with a big thick padded cushion. But it was very high – not so good for kneeling.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

The majority of the congregation gathered outside to watch the in-pensioners parade in Figure Court, moving into the chapel only a minute or two before the beginning of the service.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

After a mesmerising choral introit – a setting of "The Lord bless you and keep you" by the contemporary English composer Hannah Loach, sung in the resonant acoustics of the ante-chapel – the chaplain welcomed those who were gathered for the London Festival of Contemporary Church Music as well as members of the Military Medalists' League. We then began with the hymn "Love divine, all loves excelling."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

A pew sheet, the hymn book Common Praise, and a copy of Common Worship morning and evening prayer were handed to me as I arrived. In the pew was a Bible and the Book of Common Prayer.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ, a two-manual instrument cleaned and somewhat modified in 2006 by J.W. Walker & Sons Ltd. There was also a professional choir of twelve: five women and seven men.

Did anything distract you?

During the Hannah Loach number (and indeed throughout the service) the gentleman in front of me (not an in-pensioner) spent the entire time very loudly trying to work out what the first hymn was, despite it being listed both on the pew sheet and on the hymn boards.

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

The service was formal and traditional, but without seeming overly stiff. Indeed, it was a somewhat truncated matins, with only one reading and one canticle (the Jubilate Deo). The King James Version of the Bible was used for the reading. We were instructed to stand and sing the canticle. But the tune was not identified, and no pointings were marked, so the congregation struggled.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

10 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

8 – The chaplain was very informative and made some interesting comparisons between his text and passages from Acts of the Apostles.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

It was a discourse on the reading (Revelation 21 – a vision of the New Jerusalem).

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The singing was excellent. As mentioned, the service was part of the Contemporary Church Music Festival. We had a sparkling anthem by the British composer Jonathan Dove, a fabulous – almost comical – organ piece by the French organist and composer Pierre Cholley (Rhumba sur les Grands Jeux), and the aforementioned spine-tingling introit by Hannah Loach. Nothing at all wacky or inaccessible.

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

Head microphones, rather like you see at pop concerts, make me chuckle in a church setting.

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

The service ended with a rendering of the national anthem. The chaplain then wished us all good-bye as the in-pensioners dashed – well, tottered – off to lunch.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There was none. My party and I adjourned to a local deli on the King's Road for some posh grub.

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

8 – It was a well-orchestrated balance between the new and the old.

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

Yes. I am not particularly comfortable with singing the national anthem at a church service, but this is a chapel for the in-pensioners and so it is right and fitting.

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

The wonderful sounds of the choir wafting in from the distance at the beginning of the service.

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