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987: St Paul's, Covent Garden, London, England
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Mystery Worshipper: Purple Sparkler.
The church: St Paul's, Covent Garden ("The Actors' Church"), London, England.
Denomination: Church of England.
The building: St Paul's was designed by Inigo Jones, the master Renaissance architect who also designed stage settings, costumes and decorations for court masques at the court of James I. The church sits on what I thought was the west side (but their website says it's the north side) of what is rather pretentiously known as Covent Garden Piazza. One accesses the church's very peaceful grounds via entrances on either Henrietta Street or King Street. Inside, the church was warm both physically and visually – lots of gold paint and brass chandeliers, along with gold fabric. A large number of plaques commemorate famous names from the world of the theatre, dance and music (about which more later).
The church: The congregation was mostly elderly and distinguished looking – not surprising for Covent Garden – but what did surprise me was that there were also a goodly number of young people in their twenties. As an Anglican, you get used to there not being many young people in any church outside a university town.
The neighbourhood: Covent Garden is one of the most popular of London's tourist attractions. The Garden got its start when land formerly belonging to Westminster Abbey, the "convent garden," was redeveloped by the fourth Earl of Bedford. The area was used for agricultural purposes until the 17th century, when it became the scene of the first experiment in London of town planning with the creation of the first public square in the country. But the distinguished people who occupied the houses around the square soon began to tire of their lack of privacy. Once the private Bloomsbury Square and others were built, with bars across them to keep out undesirables, the rich removed their premises and left Covent Garden to a different kind of tenancy, much of it artistic. The oldest theatre in the area is the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Covent Garden theatre opened in Bow Street in 1732. There are also other theatres in the area, notably the Aldwych. Eventually a large market came to dominate Covent Garden. The main building we see today in the Piazza was erected in 1830, and over time other market buildings were added. The markets were relocated in 1973 and Covent Garden was slated for demolition, but a vigorous campaign by local residents and the general public prevented this vandalistic plan from going through. Instead, the market was renovated to become the popular shopping centre it is today.
The cast: The Rev. Mark Oakley, rector, was the celebrant, assisted by the Rev. Mark Kenny, curate, and an all male cast of servers. The preacher was the Rev. Martin Wroe, another of the curates.
What was the name of the service?
Eucharist celebrating the patronal festival.

How full was the building?
About two-thirds full after everyone had arrived, I would think. But people sat very spread-out in the grand tradition of lots of personal space unless you're with friends or family, so it was quite hard to tell.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes, a brief hello and handing out of the service leaflet. I think that was the only time someone actually spoke to me whilst I was there.

Was your pew comfortable?
As comfortable as any ordinary C of E pew – designed so that you can feel your bones rubbing, and just when you've finally found a comfortable position it's time to leave.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Peaceful, but mainly because people weren't talking to each other. The ladies "of a certain age" were chatting quietly, but that was about it for talking.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning and welcome to St Paul's on our patronal festival." This was said from the back of the church but everyone was facing the front, meaning we had to crane round in our pews to see what was going on.

What books did the congregation use during the service?
No books. We were given a service booklet at the start (colour printed – fancy!).

What musical instruments were played?
Organ and piano.

Did anything distract you?
St Paul's being "the Actors' Church," there are many interesting plaques on the walls commemorating famous personalities from the theatre. I found it very distracting in an "Our Father, who art in oooh! Terence Rattigan!" sort of way. Owing to a great interest in theatre, I recognised far more names than perhaps other people would (Flora Robson and Robert Helpman, for example), and even when I didn't I was still curious. I can't begin to imagine how distracting it would be for a blue plaque fanatic (blue plaques, fastened to many buildings in London, commemorate the fact that a famous person lived or worked there). Furthermore, I was distracted by the fact that there were no women amongst the clergy or supporting cast. And when the rector, flanked by his curates, performed a synchronised bowing display during the eucharistic prayer, I felt an urge to start singing that children's nursery jingle Stand up, sit down, keep moving.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Stiff-upper-lip. This is Anglican at the level that falls just short of what clergy friends affectionately refer to as "bells and smells."

Exactly how long was the sermon?
10 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 – I admired how relaxed and confident the preacher was.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Paul's conversion in Acts leads us to think that if our experience of God isn't like Paul's on the road to Damascus (hearing the voice of God, struck blind for three days), then it's not authentic or valid. Paul's conversion actually occurred over his whole lifetime, and he experienced God in the everyday just as we do. Our conversion is lifelong too, and we shouldn't worry if we don't have a road to Damascus, because we all struggle toward God and faith slowly, over a lifetime, with times of moving away from God as well as moving toward him.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The sermon was excellent and the piano music during communion was gorgeous, but the real stand-out bit of the service for me was the reading. The reader (a late-middle-aged gentleman who seemed very distinguished) was absolutely fantastic, reading with feeling and excitement. I've only ever heard one other reader do that, years ago.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
In contrast to the reading and the sermon, some of the other parts of the service seemed a little flat. And I could have done with a bit more joy in the singing, too.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Nothing. I smiled hopefully at this or that person, but I think perhaps St Paul's falls prey to the great problem of many central London churches – they get a lot of visitors and possibly don't think they can welcome them all. A welcoming committee would help.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Very swish. We're talking filter coffee in French cafetieres, no less, poured out into proper cups. Also available were big ceramic pots of tea, and posh foil-wrapped chocolate biscuits, plus an assortment of other biccies. I wondered, though, if the biccies weren't special in honor of the patronal festival.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 – I'd go again if all the readers would promise to be as good as the gentleman who was doing it that day. I'm afraid, though, that I'd end up sitting at the back and making myself invisible. When I join a new church I often find I have to make a concerted effort to talk to people, as I'm rather shy. I would prefer that someone take the initiative to talk to me.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. Having even one passage from the Bible brought so vividly to life in the reading, and discussed so well in the sermon, was great. I mentioned this to the preacher on my way out, and he seemed more than a little surprised and bewildered.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
Well, it's been over seven days, and I have to say the reading is what I remember most.
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