St Bride's, Fleet Street, London


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Bride's
Location: Fleet Street, London
Date of visit: Sunday, 18 August 2019, 11:00am

The building

Just behind the frontages of Fleet Street, this is a Wren church, rebuilt after the Great Fire of London on the site of a more ancient church possibly founded as early as the 7th century. The present church building is at least the seventh on the site. St Bride's spectacular tower, modelled on an ancient Roman lighthouse (or multi-tier wedding cake if you prefer) was designed by Wren's assistant Nicholas Hawksmoor, and is also rather hidden from many directions. Badly damaged by incendiary bombs in World War II, the Wren church now has a handsome classical interior of 1955 by the 20th century architect W. Godfrey Allen. Allen rearranged the seating to be collegiate style so that the congregation face each other, not the altar. It is a harmonious restoration except for the stained glass above the altar: a striding Jesus in a rainbow mandorla that hits every wrong note.

The church

St Bride’s is not a parish church, but a Guild church. This device, whereby responsibility for a church is vested in a Guild, has been used to rescue a number of the Wren churches in the City of London that, in parish terms, are surplus to requirements. Somehow the St Bride's Guild kept hold of its medieval property and endowments after the Reformation, so St Bride's Guild church is in an enviable position financially in spite of not having a residential parish. Member of the Guild wear brown gowns that are on display during services.

The neighborhood

Fleet Street is mostly deserted on a Sunday – hardly anyone lives nearby. Fleet Street used to be the home of many British newspapers, news agencies, printers and magazines, a tradition going back to the 17th century. St Bride's developed a reputation as the ‘journalists' church.’ Though the newspapers have all relocated out of the area in the last three decades, memorial services for journalists and publishers and other events for the world of media and journalism are still held here. Among the most eye-catching in recent years was the marriage at St Bride's of Rupert Murdoch and Jerry Hall in 2016 – so St Bride's is reinventing its role as the journalists' church.

The cast

The associate priest, a choir of eight, and various Guildsmen, whose role was not clear.

What was the name of the service?

Choral Eucharist.

How full was the building?

About 45, plus choir, and various people in robes – so 60 in all.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Yes, there were three or four smiling welcomers armed with services sheets, and they were covering both doors.

Was your pew comfortable?

The sideways facing stalls, arranged like a college chapel, have comfortable upholstered leather cushions, and so too did the kneelers. The kneelers are so high one scarcely has to fall to one’s knees – but at least the getting up again is not too difficult either.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

A bit of quiet chat, one or two tourists wondering shyly if they would or wouldn't stay for the service (they didn’t). And several members of the St Bride's Guild swishing about in brown robes trimmed with black, with medals of office round their necks.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

‘Jesus said to his disciples: “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”’

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The specially printed service sheet contained everything we needed, from hymns and liturgy to notices and prayer intentions.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ. This opus of the John Compton Organ Company Ltd, one of Britain’s most prolific organ builders, is invisible apart from its console, but seems to be hidden in chambers behind grilles either side of the tower. Not an organ pipe in sight – but it seems to be a large instrument that can utter a full sound.

Did anything distract you?

The members of the St Bride's Guild in their judicial style brown robes. Why were there so many of them? Their number was increased after the procession at the beginning of the service – and the choir wore similar brown robes too. It was such an unflattering colour, a polite name for which might be 'rust.' It was slightly disconcerting for those, like me, who go to church wearing mere civvies.

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

Middle-of-the-road Anglican from Common Worship with solid traditional hymns. This Sunday a setting by Josef Gabriel Rheinberger, his Mass in E Flat. St Bride's is rightly proud of its professional choir.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

10 minutes.

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

6 — The preacher was difficult to hear – perhaps because he was not standing near enough to the microphone, as the sound system was a pretty modern and effective affair. Though he talked round the subject at some length, mentioning current social and political divisions and our capacity as humans for cognitive dissonance, he did not make this text any less surprising and difficult for me; nor was I, at the end of the sermon, any clearer about the preacher's own attitude to it.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The text for the day – which, he admitted, was frankly unexpected: ‘Jesus said to his disciples: “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”’ Is it a ‘both-and’ moment in religion when we must embrace the ostensibly incompatible. Is it a way of achieving catharsis on the way to release (as Freud might have it), or bad biblical translation? Or what?

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The choir singing the William Byrd anthem Teach Me, O Lord, the Way of Thy Statutes, a text taken from Psalm 119. For me it is a winner every time: a beautiful text, lyrically set.

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

Two things – though far from hellish – were a little troubling: my sense of perplexity at the end of the sermon; and the prayers of intercession, which seemed to go on forever. God's appetite for intercessions is doubtless boundless, but my concentration isn’t!

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

I had to get away fairly promptly for some volunteering across town, so didn’t have the chance to look lost. There were refreshments being laid out, and an invitation from the clergyman to join them for refreshments. To judge from the aroma from the kitchen somewhere, nibbly things were being warmed. Quite a few stayed, maybe half. It looked as though they were going to keep their brown robes on to eat nibbles, but I headed into the morning sunshine on Fleet Street, by now populated with some tourists.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

It looked a fairly professional set-up but I didn't sample it.

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

7 — For a change, I might well be tempted.

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 William Byrd anthem (sublime) and the brown coloured robes (the other thing).

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