St Columba's, Pont Street, Knightsbridge, London


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Columba's
Location: Pont Street, Knightsbridge, London
Date of visit: Sunday, 4 April 2010, 11:00am

The building

The original building dating from 1884 was bombed and burned down in 1941. The present building was begun in 1950 and the finished church was dedicated in 1955. The striking contemporary design is the work of architect Sir Edward Maufe, who also designed Guildford Cathedral. At one corner of the building is a tall tower topped by a gold cross and a Scottish St Andrews flag. The basement is large, used for meetings and meals. The first floor has a prayer place and library, where paintings of previous ministers are on the walls. The worship space is on the second floor, with a gallery for choir seating. It is a bright space thanks to tall round-topped windows with clear glass. On the day of my visit, there were daffodils on the window ledges. Under the windows are carved stone painted symbols of all the Scottish counties. There are wooden pews on either side of a wide aisle. The communion table is large. Above it is a high round window with a Holy Spirit dove, and in front of it is a gold lamb holding a flag. The stone pulpit is to our left, with a turquoise starred cover above and an Easter cross in front. The lights above and the pulpit cover and the cushions are all turquoise.

The church

It is Scottish Presbyterian, with many Scots attending from around London. They support ScotsCare, the charity created by Scots for Scots, whose aim is to "improve lives for those who need our help." They also support several other charities listed on their website, including the Chelsea Laundry, which provides laundry services for the homeless. They also have a nurture ministry and even Scottish country dancing!

The neighborhood

The church is on Pont Street, a fashionable street in Knightsbridge and Belgravia. Nearby are many quite old, large, handsome houses that survived the World War II blitz; these are now subdivided into flats. On the main road are many large expensive shops and smaller creative shops, and nearby are both the stately old Harrods department store and Conran Shop, known for its contemporary designer furniture. There is also an army barracks not far away. Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens are lovely, big parks within walking distance.

The cast

The Revd Camille L. Cook, minister, and Alistair Cumming, elder and probationer.

What was the name of the service?

Easter Day Morning Service Holy Communion.

How full was the building?

Very full, at least 300 people, and not overcrowded.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Yes. The elder at the entry smiled and welcomed me. He told me where the service was and showed me the visitors' book. Another elder smiled and wished me a happy Easter. As I arrived upstairs I was welcomed again, wished a happy Easter, and given a hymn book. As I sat down, the people next to me in the pew smiled and welcomed me.

Was your pew comfortable?

Yes, it was very comfortable, with a long turquoise cushion and white linen across the top, as is done traditionally for Church of Scotland communion. There is also a wood-bottom little bench to place our feet – we never kneel.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

It was quiet but chatty. It felt very happy. The choir walked in ceremonially, dressed in dark blue, before going up to the gallery. The Bible was carried in. The minister and her assistant, vested in black robes and their academic colours, walked down to the communion table area and took seats. The elders, all wearing traditional black formal clothes, also took seats.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Let us worship God!"

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Church Hymnary and a service leaflet. The Holy Bible, New International Version, was in the pews.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ and trumpet.

Did anything distract you?

We weren't expecting the trumpet, and it was very loud. As the musicians struck up "Jesus Christ is risen today", another woman and myself reflexively turned round and looked up to the gallery.

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

Everyone sang properly, some in harmony, with the choir. We had the hymnal, but everyone knew the hymns ("Jesus Christ is risen today" and "Thine be the glory"). The people beside me were excellent singers. We also traditionally had a paraphrase and Psalm 24 ("The earth is the LORD's, and everything in it ..."), which is sung for communion, with men and women singing different parts. We all seemed to know that off by heart also.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

10 minutes.

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

9 – The minister spoke very clearly and focused not just on the resurrection, but on our emotions and what we may be able to act on for ourselves and others.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

In Lent we had been repenting and reflecting on our own life and faith. Lent is not so heavy now. "He has risen." Lent is low, Easter is high. The women who discovered Jesus' empty tomb ran to tell the others the good news. Their lives had been transformed, their souls untrapped, their hearts untroubled. The powers of death could not keep Jesus. This is good news for us: that he has risen and has changed everything. The last worst thing we have experienced is not the final last; we will all have pain, anguish, sorrow and stress. Jesus will not erase the past, but will redeem and transform it. We can rejoice today. Bring out trumpets and chocolates! Celebrate this, our best day! Start sharing the good news with people in the streets who do not know Jesus and his good news. We celebrate that our apologies have been accepted, our debts have been replaced by Jesus. The former things have passed away. Our faith is strong at last. Jesus loves us. Have a great day and great days.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The communion service was well done. We all sat in our pews, with our white linen covers, as the 20 or so elders carried the bread and wine to the communion table. The minister said, "From holy God, holy Jesus, for holy people of God. Come, let us keep the feast." The elders then carried the bread on silver plates to the person at the end of each pew, who broke off a bit for self and then passed it along to the others. The wine was in silver chalices, and again one was passed along the pew. We each drank a little and passed it on to our neighbour. We sat quietly and prayed and thanked God silently.

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

The one time many of us jumped was just before the service started – a high electric noise suddenly shrieked just for a second.

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

The people next to me spoke to me. Then, as we handed in the books and the communion card, the persons collecting and tidying them again wished me a happy Easter and said that I was welcome, and would I like to have lunch downstairs. Or would I like coffee and tea? They told me where to go and that I could look around the church.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

The fair trade tea and coffee were served in pretty blue cups and saucers. The person serving told me about the old pictures on the walls. Some other people chatted to me and all again wished me happy Easter.

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

8 – If I lived near here, I might definitely attend regularly to experience what it feels like to belong. It was beautiful and friendly, despite being traditional in the way the elders dressed. It seems a unique building.

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

Yes. I felt it was a real celebration of Easter. I felt reminded of the love of Jesus and the transformation we all experience.

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

Singing Psalm 24 with all who sang by heart. Well done!

Here's a report on another London church favored by DaisyMay: Crown Court Church of Scotland.

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