What’s in a church?

Dec 29, 2013 by

Having recently moved back to London I thought it would be fun to visit some of the famous London churches and see how they compared. I looked at: the building, welcome and atmosphere.

1. Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey


It was pouring with rain for this, my first church, so it was not great to have to wait in the rain to be let in and then have to go through security checks. Everyone was told that the Abbey was not open for visits that day, only for the service which would be two hours long. This surprised me but I think it was an attempt to put people off going in for a free viewing as it was actually only    1 1/4 hours. What did happen was that people lied and said they wanted to attend the service then stayed for about ten minutes and left which was pretty disruptive.

I should have got there earlier as I didn’t get in until after the service had started and had to sit in the right aisle where we couldn’t see the choir. There was a big screen to show the readers and priests but no camera was pointed at the choir so you had to imagine them. I think it would have been better to seat people in the body of the church, where you would normally sit for a service.

The atmosphere was lovely, very spiritual and it was great to be surrounded by monuments. I particularly loved the bells which were pealing as we left the Abbey and which carried on for quite a long time.  What I really hated was the incense! It got into my throat and gave me a headache.

Building: 6 as we were not allowed to look around and I couldn’t see much from where I was sitting.
Welcome: 5
Atmosphere: 7 but would have been 10 if it weren’t for the incense.

2. Friends’ Meeting House, Euston Road

Friends Meeting House


Another rainy day but this time I got straight into the building. I thought the meeting would be in the main hall but, after a bit of wandering round I had to ask and found it was in a room upstairs. This was probably more suitable for the number of people present.

This was my second meeting; the last one had been in a tiny meeting house with only six of us. I had also attended my cousin’s Quaker wedding so had a bit of an idea what to expect.

I arrived with about ten minutes to go before the beginning and noticed some people were reading books, possibly with the idea of sharing something. The meeting was very relaxed. Now I understand the format, I didn’t feel any pressure to speak myself but was expecting a few people would speak, mainly because there were so many there.

The atmosphere was lovely. Only two people spoke in the end but I felt comfortable with the silence. Our lives are so busy, stillness and quiet is very precious.

At the end people shook hands with their neighbours and people who were not regular attenders were invited to introduce themselves. There were lots of smiles and chat which continued over coffee.

Building: 6 but Friends Meeting Houses are meant to be plain.
Welcome: 9
Atmosphere: 9

3. St Paul’s Cathedral

St Paul's Cathedral


A lovely sunny day, I arrived early at St Paul’s and was surprised to find no queues, no security and tourists wandering round the Cathedral. As I was early I was able to take a seat at the front, where the chairs were arranged either side of the central circle in a curve. The high altar and choir stalls were not used and people filled seats right to the back of the church.

I visited on 29th December, a busy time of year for the Cathedral and the choir were not leading the singing. Instead, the Lady Margaret Singers led the Mass. They were delightful and I enjoyed listening to the parts of the service they sang for us.

It was lovely to be able to participate in a service at St Paul’s, amidst all the golden splendour. Remember the collection. They did very well out of me as I only had a ten pound note and a few coins!

Building: 10
Welcome: 8
Atmosphere: 10

4. Wesley’s Chapel

Wesley's Chapel


I was lucky to participate in the Covenant Service, the biggest one of the year when Methodists all over the world renew their commitment. Expecting the service to start at 9.45 am, which is does except on the first Sunday of the month, I was very early. I went up the road and found a lovely independent coffee shop so had time to relax and even fitted in a stroll across to Bunhill Fields Burial Ground.

John Bunyan's Memorial

I couldn’t have felt more welcome. I spoke to three people before I even sat down and then chatted to members of the congregation. This is a very vibrant community but the congregation included many visitors from different countries.

This church felt like home. If it were nearer I would definitely think about making it my regular place of worship and will definitely visit again, maybe one of the Taize services. The acoustics were excellent and the singing amazing. I particularly loved the unaccompanied singing during communion, led by the large choir.

Building: 8
Welcome: 10
Atmosphere: 9

From the raw scores St Paul’s wins but Wesley’s Chapel was the church which felt like a real welcoming community and I therefore enjoyed that service the most. It shows how hard it is to measure an experience.

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