The Temple Church, London, England


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: The Temple Church
Location: London, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 28 July 2019, 11:55am

The building

The nave of the building – in common with most of those built by the chivalric order of monk-knights known as the Templars – is circular. The rectangular part where services are held is the chancel, which is much more spacious than the round nave (the building was never cruciform). Both parts of the church date from 1185. Although most of the fittings were damaged by incendiary bombs in World War II, the architecture is a remarkable example of Early English Gothic that is essentially unchanged since it was built.

The church

Inasmuch as this is the chapel for the legal community of the Temple, it is difficult to guess who attends services regularly, though services are open to the general public. The Temple Church doesn’t operate like a parish church – indeed, it isn't one. It is a private chapel and, though in the heart of London and an Anglican church of great antiquity in terms of church jurisdiction, it is a ‘peculiar’ (i.e., beyond the jurisdiction of the Bishop of London). Its regular services, choirs and clergy are funded by private endowments – and neither the church, nor the Temple more generally, give the impression they are short of cash. For historical reasons, the chaplain of the Temple is called the Master.

The neighborhood

The site of the Templars' monastic enclosures – today known as the Inner and Middle Temple – are now occupied by barristers organised in domestic looking ‘chambers.’ That is to say, they are legal offices for the kind of advocate who works in the upper courts of the British legal system. They are called chambers from the days when barristers lived on the premises and worked from home as gentlemen scholars. Today the barristers mostly live outside the Temple enclave, but there remain a number of residential chambers tucked in odd corners, typically occupied by senior lawyers and retired judges. The Temple is a remarkable tight-knit ‘village’ of alleyways and pedestrian squares, often used as a set in feature films to represent Victorian England, as the few modern buildings that have sprung up are nevertheless in traditional architectural styles. Temple Church has achieved international fame (notoriety?) due to the novel The Da Vinci Code, in which it is a key locale. One wonders how many of the tourists who make their way here during the week read the novel as historic fact.

The cast

The Bishop of London presided, assisted by two clergy from the Temple Church, the church's professional choir, and robed sidesmen.

What was the name of the service?

Baptism, Conformation and Choral Communion.

How full was the building?

The chancel – that is, the rectangular part – was full. I would guess 300 or more.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

The Temple remains the walled and gated community it was in monastic times, and on Sundays several of the gates are locked shut. Those wanting to gain admission to services in Temple Church are advised to use Inner Temple Gate, which is next door to No. 17 Fleet Street, where a beadle will give directions. It makes one feel like a guest in a private space – as indeed one is. Once I got to the church door itself, a clergyman welcomed me warmly. Inside, a lady gave me a nice smile as she handed me the service sheet.

Was your pew comfortable?

Up to a point – it didn’t have enough depth in the seat. But we did quite a bit of standing up in this service, so it didn’t matter.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Like the first half hour of a well-attended cocktail party. The church was alive with animated conversation. Most of this was focussed on family groups, presumably guests of those who were to be baptised or confirmed that day, meeting, greeting, chatting, shaking hands and kissing. One man near me laughed repeatedly with such loud hilarity the Knights Templars in their medieval tombs must have heard him. There was a distinctly upbeat energy. Dress code smart casual, going on chic. In a moment of vanity I felt pleased with myself for opting to wear a linen jacket to church, in spite of warm weather. A lady nearby was wearing a perfume of particularly alluring fragrance.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

‘Good morning, everybody.’ There was then a short announcement about the logistics for the baptism.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Just the service sheet for the day, beautifully laid out, comprehensive and detailed. More of a service booklet, really.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ, played at volume and expertly – until the final blessing, that is (read on!).

Did anything distract you?

Of the baptismal candidates, two were to be christened ‘Inigo.’ Then one of the three boy choristers who was taking leave that day, and to whom we gave thanks, was also an Inigo. It seems that the name Inigo, first recorded in England for the pioneer classical architect Inigo Jones (b. 1573), is enjoying a vigorous renaissance, at least in legal circles. That, and enjoying the lady's fragrant perfume and trying to work out who was wearing it, distracted me. (Your Mystery Worshipper is, dear reader, all too easily distracted.) Oh – and that wasn't all. The portable baptismal font was a splendid piece of silverware looking like a punchbowl from which one might be served a fruit cup. I found myself wondering if it was just that, and if so when it was last used, and for what sort of punch, at what occasion … so distracted I was!

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

Traditional Anglican, with 1662 Prayer Book words interspersed with mass settings, anthem, psalm by Haydn, Schubert and Britten, sung by the choir. The large choir of about 30 could have comfortably filled a cathedral with music, let alone this more modestly sized church, and they were conducted with expansive whole-arm gestures. The congregation joined in the hymn singing with considerable gusto, which was nice. But the poor bishop processed in wearing a cope and with crook in hand, and had to squeeze awkwardly past the choirmaster of substantial build, who was occupying the centre of the aisle and standing before a large music desk (couldn't both have moved to one side until the procession was over?). Worse, at the end of the service the bishop took up a position centrally before the high altar for the final blessing, mitre on, crook in hand. As she took an intake of breath to utter the words, the organ came crashing in, all stops out, with a Bach fantasia. The bishop glanced sideways at the two clergy, exchanged a smile with them – then, clearly realising this was a competition she would not win, processed out with dignity. We remained un-blessed.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

8 minutes.

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

7 — The epitome of brevity.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The reading was the Sermon on the Mount, and the bishop preached briefly to its centrality before connecting it to the sacraments of baptism and confirmation, which are central to a Christian life.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The bishop had five baptismal candidates, of whom four were babes in arms. It is rarely a surprise to me that babies start crying, sometimes screaming, when at baptism they are handed over to a stranger wearing weird clothes and are doused with water unlikely to be at blood temperature. Here, the bishop took each child with care (she was, years ago, a nurse), looked at them lovingly, and said an audible hello, bonding momentarily with each before proceeding with the formalities of the rite. The babies were as good as gold and seemed to find it all rather interesting. There are more baby-comfortable men in our world these days, thank goodness, but it seemed a woman's touch here counted for something too.

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

The bishop's blessing cut off by the organ.

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

The church erupted into the kind of conviviality that had preceded the service. I chatted to an elderly lady nearby who was a regular at the services, though I didn’t get to find out if she lived in the Temple or was, like me, a visitor from beyond the walls.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

I didn’t see coffee, but waiters served wine of three colours and soft drinks of four sorts. This was billed as taking place in the Master's Garden next door, but in fact was under cover in the spacious portico and the round nave, surrounded by the medieval tombs of the Knights Templar. A nudge in the service sheet raised the thought that we might contribute £5 per adult to help defray the cost of refreshments.

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

4 — There was too much the atmosphere of a parents’ day at a public school. I prefer worship among a parish community – or for larger services at a cathedral of the sort that feels like the mother church of its diocese. The fact that I was so readily distracted in this service is perhaps telling.

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

Maybe, slightly.

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

The Inigos are coming.

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