St Mary Abbots, Kensington, London


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Mary Abbots
Location: Kensington, London
Date of visit: Sunday, 12 May 2019, 11:55am

The building

Photo: Shuki Vigodny Though there has been a church on this site for about 1000 years, this is a spacious, indeed grand, Victorian building designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott, one of the best (and certainly one of the most prolific) church architects of the 19th century. It’s a fine essay in the Decorated Gothic Revival style, with a very lofty nave. It was finished in 1872 – but the huge spire took a further seven years. It was badly damaged by bombing in a 1944 air raid but conservatively restored.

The church

This appears to be a lively parish with a prosperous church school, if their website is anything to go by. It is certainly in a prosperous part of London. The parish is in interregnum, but seems to be carrying on with a full range of services – there are four services on Sunday and several during the week. At the notices in this service we learned there were just a handful of tickets left for the parish wine tasting that week – tasting wine seems to be more popular than matins hereabouts!

The neighborhood

Slightly hidden away behind shops and other buildings of Kensington High Street and Church Street, the lofty spire is most obvious from a little distance away in Kensington Gardens, from where it is a soaring landmark. Close-up, the large church is entered either along a cloistered walk behind a flower stall or down a pedestrian alleyway off the busy High Street. On Sundays – as other days – mammon and mass tourism have the streets of Kensington mostly to themselves, with shops at their busiest. So it is a relief to step into the quiet gardens and burial ground around St Mary's, then into the welcoming gloom of the church.

The cast

The associate vicar, a choir of four voices, organist.

What was the name of the service?

Though billed as Choral Matins Eucharist on the website, it turned out to be just Choral Matins.

How full was the building?

Mostly empty. I counted 18 at the commencement of proceedings, in a church that I guess could seat 500. Various people, possibly curious tourists, wandered in during the service, as the west doors were left open. Some of these lingered and sat down towards the back. Whether they understood the language of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer I am not sure, but I hope they derived something from the space, music and liturgy – as I like to think I do when attending a Shinto shrine or Buddhist stupa on travels.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

As I entered by the large west doors I spotted nobody on duty, but I did notice a welcomer at the south door. So I sought her out, and she bade me welcome and issued the paperwork.

Was your pew comfortable?

A traditional pew: firm, trusty, non-squeaky and reasonably comfortable. It was softened with a length of red carpet along the seat (though this was not exactly of the deep pile sort).

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Fairly quiet compared to the retail frenzy on Kensington High Street. There was the faint sound of children playing in the churchyard, which struck me as charming. The choir were sharing a joke in the aisle.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

‘A very warm welcome to you, especially if you are visiting us for the first time.’

What books did the congregation use during the service?

New English Hymnal plus two service sheets, which were confusing. We didn’t follow what was on either of them exactly, even though one was dated for the day and the other 'Eastertide.’ One sheet said that the words of the readings were on the other sheet, except they weren't. A few sections were missing altogether; I got lost twice.

What musical instruments were played?

Organs. An electric job accompanied the hymns, which were sung lustily by the choir and clergyman, but not the congregation (I felt as though I was the only other one singing). For the choir's anthem a portable chamber organ accompanied them, to really beautiful effect.

Did anything distract you?

Two things. One: it took some time before the penny dropped that this was not in fact to be a Choral Matins with Eucharist as billed on the website. Two: several people walked up the aisle into the vestry during the service, one of them carrying what looked like a pot of paint and long paint brush. Some left shortly thereafter – what was going on in there?

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

It was a 1662 Prayer Book Matins. We sang some of the responses, but not others. For example, we were supposed to sing the Easter anthems and Te Deum, but the choir sang the Lord's Prayer (without us) and it struck me it might have worked better the other way about. I didn’t know the chants used and, in any case, find the scansion of chants difficult, so I simply read along. I couldn’t hear any other member of the congregation singing the chanted sections, so I guess I was not alone in this. The high point was the anthem after the sermon: Christ Rising Again from the Dead from the Elizabethan prayer book and set to music by Welsh composer Thomas Tomkins (1572-1656). Really beautifully sung by the choir of four. Each line or half-line was treated as a separate phrase and given madrigal-like treatment. At the end of the service everyone stood to attention and sang the National Anthem (rather better than they had sung anything else). Is this because Kensington Palace is within the parish boundary? It still felt odd, as this was not a Chapel Royal.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

7 minutes.

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

6 — It seemed that the preacher spoke on two different topics, and I couldn’t make the connection between them unless he was expecting us to connect the dots.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The preacher had once been asked by his churchwarden, ‘What is church for?’ He had replied, ‘For the worship of the risen Christ,’ but the warden thought its role was to be a place where the community could come together. Luke (from whose gospel the reading for the day was taken) both started and finished his gospel account by describing Temple worship. The preacher then paid tribute to Jean Vanier, founder of L'Arche (an organization dedicated to improving the lives of people with intellectual disabilities), who had died that week. I was with him in his tribute to this remarkable man.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The choir singing the Tomkins anthem.

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

Maybe I should have listed this as a distraction, but a middle aged Polish couple behind me chattered animatedly, under their breath but still loud enough. I think they were having a domestic, with long silences you knew would shortly be broken by a further point-scoring accusation. They left the service halfway through before it got to the boiling point.

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

There was no coffee and not much hanging around – though a small number of people had started to gather for the eucharist that was to follow in a side chapel in 15 minutes. As I like a Sunday eucharist (and had initially thought I was attending one) I was tempted to stay, but lunch with friends beckoned a few miles across London and I'm afraid your Mystery Worshipper skipped both the sacred mysteries and further hanging around. (Are these sacking offences?)

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

I didnt see any on offer.

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

5 — At 11.15 on a Sunday morning I prefer eucharistic worship.

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

In parts.

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

The Tomkins anthem.

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