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  1011: St Clement Danes, Aldwych, London

St Clement Danes, Aldwych, London

Mystery Worshipper: Church Belle.
The church: St Clement Danes, Aldwych, London.
Denomination: Church of England.
The building: A very elegant church designed by Christopher Wren in 1682 with a steeple added later in 1719. The interior is dark wood, with walls and ceiling above the gallery in grey, white and gold. (No oranges or lemons – I was a tad disappointed.)
The church community: This is the official Royal Air Force church in London.
The neighbourhood: St Clement Danes is on a busy traffic island at the end of the Aldwych and the Strand. One must take care not to get squashed by a bus en route to the church (I nearly was!).
The cast: The Rev. Richard Lee, resident chaplain (a very dishy looking chap in red), led the service. The Rev. Bill Pegg, chaplain of the Aircrew Association, gave an address.

What was the name of the service?
A service of commemoration for the Aircrew Association.

How full was the building?
Pretty packed – about 400 or more people.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
The service was for invitees only, but a charming sidesperson said I was welcome to join in and showed me to an excellent seat near the back of the church. I wanted to sit upstairs in the gallery where Dr Samuel Johnson had once sat, but was advised that the view might be rather restricted. And so I stayed where I was.

Was your pew comfortable?
My pew was on wheels. This gave me a nasty shock – as I sat down, the whole thing slid to the left and began to disappear beneath the pew next to it. I discovered later that these are pulled out only for busy services; the rest of the time they are pushed closed to make for a wider aisle. How odd! And no kneelers for these temporary extensions.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Well, I was mighty glad I'd dressed up a bit. My ripped jeans and "ban the bomb" t-shirt would not have been de rigeur at all. Most of the congregation were ex-servicemen sporting smart blazers and lots of medals. Many of the ladies wore elegant hats. Everyone seemed very pleased to see one another, and the church had the feel of a regimental reunion.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
The service lifted off with O worship the King followed by the National Anthem (both verses). The first spoken words were, "We meet together today to renew the special bond of comradeship which exists between all aircrew of the armed services."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
We were given an order of service beautifully printed in blue on crispy shiny paper – a bit more upmarket than the tatty old xeroxed thing I usually get in my regular church.

What musical instruments were played?
Organ – a splendid organ – played by a splendid organist and complemented by a very good choir (a bit too good, as will be seen).

Did anything distract you?
I was astounded that a mobile phone went off during the service, as I really thought nobody in an organisation like the RAF would be so remiss as to have forgotten to turn his phone off. There was an odd high-pitched whistle at the start of the service – perhaps someone's hearing aid, or was it in my ears and was I in need of one? The sidespeople sat at the sides of the church like Wimbledon linesmen, but actually I quite liked that. The verger was in blue with a badge proclaiming him "Church Manager."

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Not so much stiff upper lip as sub-nasal rigor mortis. It was military, and military is what we got!

Exactly how long was the sermon?
15 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
4 – I must be fair here. This was an airmen's reunion, not a parish service. Parts of this address were very interesting, but there was a lack of religious content apart from a hint at the end about caring for one another. I found this mildly irritating.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
It was a history lesson on what happened 60 years ago. I was intrigued to hear that our preacher had flown over Mount Ararat and was disappointed not to see Noah's Ark there.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Belting out the National Anthem with all those servicemen. Onward Christian Soldiers was pretty good too. My heart was filled with feelings of great patriotism.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
I loved the choir at first. One of the women had a most beautiful voice that would have made her welcome in any opera company. But they sang the Te Deum without congregational participation (well, we would probably have made a bit of a mess of it, to be honest). Then they sang all the responses and threw in an extra Lord's Prayer for good measure. Next they sang a very long anthem followed by God be in my head. I felt as if the congregation hadn't joined in at all!. The choir sang just above my head (in the gallery, I mean, not beyond my comprehension) so I was not able to see them. I'll bet Samuel Johnson got a better view. By the end of the service I was beginning to think of them as a really irritating choir who just loved the sound of their own voices.

If intercessory prayers were said, what issues were raised?
Intercessions were for the Queen (now isn't that a surprise?), but I don't remember any others. I was busy being cheesed off at not having a kneeler.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Well, come on – everyone else was in uniform. They were off to a special RAF lunch. I couldn't honestly expect anyone to take me under his wing after I'd just gate-crashed their service! That said, a very nice lady sitting next to me, who is a regular parishioner, was very friendly and explained what happens on a normal Sunday when they have a much smaller congregation of about 30. We exited via a side door to avoid the crush, and she helped me cross the road without getting flattened by a bus. Sadly, I missed shaking the hand of the dishy chaplain in red.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Under the circumstances, it would have been impossible to serve coffee. However, on normal Sundays they apparently manage to do so.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
3 – If I were somehow connected to the RAF I would definitely attend this church, as I felt they had good community spirit. Regulars chatted with each other and the sidespeople were attentive despite the church's being so full.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
To be brutally honest, not really. It made me glad to be British, though, and I felt proud of the brave men who had flown their planes in the war. But I don't think Jesus was ever mentioned in the service. I am still wondering whether God got much of a plug either.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The flags. They looked splendid and were paraded in true military style. At the end we applauded the services of a retiring standard bearer – a flagging flagman(?).
 
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