Thoughts on a visit to St Martin in the Fields, and a huge weekend.
The crowds all around Westminster and nearby boroughs were incredible. Not only was it the August Bank Holiday weekend, but day 1 of the Notting Hill Festival, and a brilliant day weather-wise.
If the crowd was huge, so too was the police presence: some 8 000 members in attendance at the festival, carnival, and nearby areas. They did a fabulous job, despite some nervousness how things would be in the wake of the riots a few weeks ago. London’s Lord Mayor, the amazing Boris Johnson, has been expressing his hope that the festival would be a healing occasion. More on that next time, we’ve just returned from time there, but back to St Martin.
The church is on Trafalgar Square, and has a significant history as part of the fabric of the area. A few years ago, they decided they needed to make better use of their buildings; as a development of their calling to be a welcoming presence in the area, and also as a means of generating income for their mission and presence. The worship centre is a warm and hospitable gathering area, with a couple of funny bits.
This is the front window which has this great stylised cross as its centre, it’s very striking as you walk in.
As we arrived, and as worship began, we were welcomed warmly, and they meant it! (I heard a contrasting story today of St Margaret’s church, part of Westminster Abbey, who closed their church to all but regular congregation members for worship. Effectively “You can come and pay money to look at our building, but you can’t worship with us!”) A much better vibe at St Martin, including the invitation “If you receive Holy Communion in your church and wish to do so here, you are very welcome.”
Worship didn’t really connect with me. Liturgy was not as inclusive as the little note on the cover suggested it would be), and the Holy Communion liturgy reflects a theological place I’ve left (the sacrificial language etc). In addition I found the aesthetics and design of the worship space nice, but found it strange for the flow of worship. The pulpit sits behind 25% of the congregation, and apart from the 3 Australians in the 3rd row, no one turned around to look at the preacher in her elevated pulpit. I was a bit worried that we were breaking a rule, but the whole idea of not looking at the preacher was just too strange. Prayers for the people came from the back of the room, which I couldn’t see.
But for all that, it was good to sit and participate in a different way, and I DID sense a community of kindred spirits practising the faith and life we have in common.
There was a fascinating moment after the final blessing, and I’m wondering what it says about the church’s sense of identity, after its very clear and mission driven redevelopment a few years ago. The organ started with a HUGE postlude, which was brilliantly played, but opinions are divided on what it did for/to the sense of worship. Did it connect or not? Certainly one lady from the regular congregation thought not: she went to the warden with her hands over her ears, and was seen complaining strongly. Then, as the postlude finished and a few people applauded, this lady (who looked quite a lot like Mrs Cropley from the Vicar of Dibley) yelled at the organist “This is NOT a concert hall!”
Afterwards, for me, provided the highlights of the visit.
Many wonderful conversations happened between the various Australians and congregation members, as well as other visitors. Liz, John, Paul and I had a great chat with Will, a non-stipendiary priest who had just led much of the worship service. He works in other employment during the week, and talked of how he uses the St Martin complex as a welcoming and neutral place into which he can bring various community individuals together in conversation and common purpose. In many cases, these are opposing groups who have never been encouraged to sit together in conversation rather than in opposition.
Again, the aesthetics of the hospitality space, and of the area in general, encourages such use. Even the traditional hall, which is largely underground, has been made embracing by the use of attractive, colourful artworks and flowers etc, as well as nice coffee!
The architecture of the renewed space has been careful and is quite inspired, in such as things as making a large light well from the pavement above, which not only provides light but opens what happens below to anyone curious enough to look over the rail. In addition the church crypt has been opened up as a café, and does very good business.
St Martin people are quite upfront about the use of property to generate income for the church’s work. SMITF is entirely self-funding, apart from some grants they received for the building programme through the social lottery etc. £36 million, paid back already (!) It was very interesting to see how they address the balance b/w making money and selling their soul. I think they do well and have created a really significant sacred space for the community, which has apparently embraced it warmly. Lots to take away, some good reflections and a couple ideas I’m thinking of stealing!