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  1040: Chelsea Old Church, Chelsea, London

Chelsea Old Church, Chelsea, London

Mystery Worshipper: Galgallo.
The church: Chelsea Old Church, Chelsea, London.
Denomination: Church of England.
The building: Red brick building on the outside, belying its long history, which goes back as far as the 13th century. Chelsea Old church was largely destroyed during an air raid in 1941, and was restored in 1949-50. Once inside, the weight of history presses down hard. Plaques and memorials are scattered throughout the interior, some dedicated to notable public figures. It has been claimed that they are the finest collection of church monuments outside Westminster Abbey. Whether or not that is the case, they certainly provided captivating reading material for the service.
The church community: The parish of Chelsea Old Church is one of the smallest parishes in London, and is at the centre of old Chelsea village. The church describes itself as traditional, having used the Book of Common Prayer since the days of Elizabeth I, but hastens to add this does not mean they are inward looking. Sir Thomas More used to attend with his family nearly 500 years ago; royals such as Henry VIII and James I have visited; and John Wesley preached from the pulpit when other Anglican pulpits were closed to him. But to crown it all, in true Vicar of Dibley style, the church has its "famous Animal service", where all fairly well-behaved animals and insects are more than welcome. No doubt this is for the benefit of the famed pastoralists of the sweeping Chelsea grasslands.
The neighbourhood: The Thames. The smell of the Thames. Battersea Bridge to the right, Albert Bridge to the left. A statue of Sir Thomas More. And in the small park opposite the church, a dog lavatory – only in Chelsea...
The cast: The service was led by an older male minister, whose name was not given, nor were we able to find out.

What was the name of the service?
12.15pm holy communion, which was the third service of the morning. Quite a few well-dressed people were coming out of the previous service when we arrived, and our taxi driver ventured the view that it was time for church to be finishing, not starting. That appeared to be the view of the minister as well, as we discovered!

How full was the building?
No one was inside the church when we arrived 10 minutes early. By the start of the service, there were 14 people present, including us. We all sat on the right hand side of the church, communion being conducted in a side chapel. Given that the church website says there are 631 members on its roll, this was a very small sample of the church congregation. Perhaps all the sensible ones had gone home for lunch?

Did anyone welcome you personally?
A lady with a black headscarf confirmed that there was a 12.15pm service and gave us our books. We then asked for the toilets, and were directed through the vestry and outside to the church hall, saying hello to the disrobing/robing clergy on the way. Thus our discreet profile was not maintained. On the other hand, they may have thought we attended so we could use the toilets.

Was your pew comfortable?
The pews were of the very traditional wooden variety. We didn't have time to think about comfort, since the service was over in 26 minutes.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Very quiet; but then there were only 14 people there.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Tomorrow is St Mark's day, so we will celebrate it today."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
A dark blue hardback book with "Chelsea Old Church" on the cover, which on inspection turned out to be the Book of Common Prayer. A white takeaway service sheet was also provided, which strangely contained no information about this service at all. At no point during the service were the congregation directed to any pages in the book. It seemed to be the assumption that one would know the service by heart. The Bible readings, also read by the minister, were taken from the King James version, but there were no pew Bibles.

What musical instruments were played?

Did anything distract you?
The eucharistic liturgy, fast food style. The minister was the only up front participant in the service, and spoke the liturgy at high speed from memory. Lines were run into each other, regardless of subject matter, leaving me curious as to what the hurry was. There was also some clumping and clattering from behind me, which I couldn't identify until after the service. A lady on the back row had a small dog named Lilly. Apparently, Lilly has come to the church every week to pray since she was four months old. Lilly doesn't attend the famous animal service, however, as she prefers people to animals.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
There was no worship of the singing/musical variety in the service. Stiff upper-lip nearly captures it, but not so stiff that the congregation couldn't engage in some serious mumbling.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
No sermon. The only deviation from the script in the entire service was when the minister read the epistle to the Ephesians. Just before reading it, he commented that the letter was "almost certainly not by Paul", and at the end of the reading he added, "As you can see, the style of the language is not Pauline". I thought it rather a random insertion of an authorship controversy into the service.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The sense of history, that Christian worship has been going on here for hundreds of years. People praying in a place for that long seems to do something to it.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
As the only person in the congregation who didn't know the words, I would have appreciated some guidance. As it was, the service was for the initiated only.

If intercessory prayers were said, what issues were raised?
The service was on the money when it came to the prayers. The minister prayed for the new Pope, that he might be the pastor of the church. The election also came up, as did the royal family, although the latter is built-in.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Given the high speed of the service and the lateness of the hour, this was not a hanging around situation. We did discover Lilly the dog and her owner, and the lady with the black headscarf made of point of saying "Come again" as we left.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 – The website and leaflets suggest there is far more to the church than this service. So a prospective 5 for other services, but a 2 for this one.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
I could stretch to, "Yes, a bit", due to receiving communion, and odd fragments of the liturgy.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
Lilly the dog.
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