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1790: St Matthew's, Bethnal Green, London
St Matthew's, Bethnal Green, London
Mystery Worshipper: Cool Dude.
The church: St Matthew's, Bethnal Green, London.
Denomination: Church of England, Diocese of London.
The building: Nicholas Hawksmoor, the 18th century English architect who worked with Christopher Wren, prepared sketches for a church based on Solomon’s Temple, but the idea was abandoned for lack of funds. The present church was built in fits and starts to serve the outlying East End hamlets that had grown up east of the Tower north of the newly thriving London docks. Finished in 1746, it was burnt out in the 19th century and again in the blitz. Today's church is a 1960s reconstruction in the 18th century style. Inside, there are a number of 1960s artworks in a light, open and flexible space. The stations of the cross, executed in ceramic by the sculptor Donald Potter (who died in 2004 at age 102), are particularly successful.
The church: I lived nearby ten years ago when the church re-painted its notice boards to proclaim "Forward In Faith" in large letters across the top where "Diocese of London" had been. I gather a large part of the parish went to Rome. Things seem to have settled since, and the assistant priest now is a woman, a sister from the Haggerston Priory.
The neighbourhood: The funeral of the Kray twins, perhaps the foremost perpetrators of organised crime in London's East End during the 1950s and 1960s, took place here. The church is very much a part of the East End. The parish website observes that the "problems and deprivations of the area have not actually changed that much in 250 years – poverty, prostitution, tensions between immigrant communities and drug abuse were as much a part of the 19th century priests' work as they are in the 21st." About 70 per cent of the parish today are Muslims of Bangladeshi origin who live in some of the more deprived wards in the country. There is some eye-catching gentrification around Spitalfields, and the hugely popular and increasingly trendy Sunday Markets in and around Brick Lane and Columbia Road a few hundred yards away mean the area is busy and lively on Sundays.
The cast: The Revd Kevin Scully, vicar, and an altar party of four young servers. The servers all wore different brands of trainers and simple albs. The priest wore a silk stole over his alb but otherwise avoided clerical fancy dress. His hair was pulled back in a long plait that reached right down his back and seemed to suit his role – echoes of an 18th century philosophy, perhaps.
The date & time: Sunday, 16 August 2009, 10.30am.

What was the name of the service?
Parish Mass.

How full was the building?
About 35, though latecomers probably pushed this to 50.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
Outside, as I approached across the churchyard, a gent strolled toward me smiling and holding out his hand to shake mine. "Welcome to St Matthew's Church," he said. Inside, a second greeter said, "You are very welcome; sit wherever you like" and gave me a hymn book and service sheet. Was a church welcome ever better done?

Was your pew comfortable?
It was a chair and passed muster.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
There was clearly no rule about keeping silence, just very quiet chat here and there, an air of expectancy.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"First hymn 52!" shouted from the vestry.

What books did the congregation use during the service?
A service sheet and hymn book.

What musical instruments were played?

Did anything distract you?
At one point the priest disappeared behind a column for some business. Presumably there is an aumbry for reservation there, but as you can't see it you wonder what is going on!

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The altar party strode up the aisle with a youthful enthusiasm that lifted my spirits – our priest and his posse! The service was modern catholic, Common Prayer, and taken at a brisk pace – 55 minutes in all. The thurifer looked bemused and pleasantly surprised about the smoke he was producing. The liturgy was observant, but not done in a way to show off. The priest and server made the ablutions into a real hand-washing, not the haughty dip in an egg-cup that you sometimes see at Anglo-Catholic emporia. The peace was of the comprehensive sort, with everyone shaking every else's hand. Though I prefer a more modest gesture, the peace was in line with the warmth of welcome. As the priest shook my hand, he spotted me as a visitor and said, "Peace – and welcome."

Exactly how long was the sermon?
11 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – The sermon was clear, concise and approachable.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
He spoke about the incarnation, the request that communion be taken only in one kind (the bread) during the swine flu epidemic, and the fact that he himself suffered from coeliac disease, which disrupts the absorption of nutrients, and so uses gluten free wafers. He worked all of this into a consideration of the worshipping community.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The long and serene silence kept after the sermon. You could have heard a pin drop. I find collective silence very moving.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The selection of hymns chosen didn't quite do it for me.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Before I had time to hang around and look lost, a greeter had spotted me and asked me to join the parish for coffee if I wished. He was welcoming but non-coercive. As I left, the vicar handed me a leaflet introducing the church to visitors.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Filter coffee served in mugs.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – I am seriously considering it.

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 warmth of welcome.
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