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3099: Annunciation, Marble Arch, London
Annunciation, Marble Arch (Exterior)
Mystery Worshipper: Sipech.
The church: Annunciation, Marble Arch, London.
Denomination: Church of England, Diocese of London.
The building: Surprisingly modern. It was built shortly before the First World War in a Gothic Revival style, designed by the late 19th/early 20th century champion of Gothic Revival, Sir Walter Tapper. The outside of the building manages to look both innocuous (blending in with the surrounding buildings) and slightly austere (due to the relative lack of windows) at the same time. As you enter, your eye is drawn down the nave to the rood screen, which has a gantry on top of it, from which the choir sang (instead of in the choir stalls in the chancel). Above this is a triumphal cross. The high altar, peering from behind the rood screen, was topped by six enormous candles, but these were dwarfed by a reredos on the far wall. The sides of the nave were dotted with what appeared to be paintings of stations of the cross – though on closer inspection, they were actually 3D models that were each set within a frame.
The church: Church of the Annunciation can trace itself back to a chapel of ease built in the late 18th century, but the church as it exists today has only been around for as long as the building has. Though ostensibly Anglican, it has a history of being vehemently anti-ecumenical, preferring closer ties with Roman Catholicism than with Baptists, Methodists or other Christian denominations. That said, I saw no sign of such hostility on my visit. Today, it is a very welcoming community, with messages of openness and inclusiveness all around the church. I was told that the church is attached to a very well regarded school and as such there can be tendency for people to start coming along when their children are approaching school age. The church also attracts a number of overseas visitors, apparently many of whom believe it to be a Roman Catholic church.
The neighbourhood: The church is located just off the western end of Oxford Street, one of Londonís busiest thoroughfares and shopping areas. On the opposite side of the road is the Marble Arch, originally designed as the entrance to the cour d'honneur (ceremonial courtyard) of Buckingham Palace but moved to its present location in 1851. The surrounding area, as well as the nearby tube station, is known by that name. The arch sits at the north-east corner of Hyde Park, which, at the time of my visit, was playing host to Winter Wonderland, a giant Christmas fair and temporary amusement park, replete with gaudy lights, overpriced food and drink, and crushing crowds of people.
The cast: The service was led by the Revd Gerald Beauchamp, priest in charge. He was assisted by two acolytes and a crucifer who were not named. The lessons were read by Steve Philips, Bob Jones, Sherry Robbins, Gavin Monk, Mumin Choudhury, Helen White and the priest.
The date & time: Saturday, 17 December 2016, 7.00pm.

What was the name of the service?
A Traditional Service of Lessons and Carols for Christmas.

How full was the building?
There were about 25-30 people in the congregation, making it feel a little sparse. I was assured that a Sunday morning service is a bit better attended.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes. I was given a warm verbal greeting and handed a notice sheet as well as a candle in a little plastic sheath.

Was your pew comfortable?
No pews here. There were two types of chairs available. One was a very modern but bland-looking plastic fold-down seat. I was sat on a slightly older looking chair that had a woven straw seat inside a neat wooden frame. It was neither comfortable nor uncomfortable.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
It was quiet and informal. A few friends spoke to one another as they came in, but there didn't feel to be any pressure to be hushed.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Beloved in Christ, be it this Christmastime our care and delight to prepare ourselves to hear again the message of the angels."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
We just had the one booklet, which contained all the words for the service. It was a little tricky to turn the page when we were also holding a lit candle in the other hand, though this was only for a short part of the service.

What musical instruments were played?
There was an organ that was very skillfully played (see below) that accompanied a choir made up of five people.

Did anything distract you?
The organist clearly decided to have a bit of fun during the congregation's singing of "Ding Dong Merrily on High." The music was filled with mischievous little improvisational flourishes. It made it harder to sing to, but it was incredibly joyful. More than one person was looking around with a mirthful grin on their face, and I had to bite my fist so as not guffaw too audibly.

Annunciation, Marble Arch (Interior)

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was fairly traditional but wasn't stuffy. Though no incense was being swung, there was a faint whiff of it in the air. We had seven readings (rather than the usual nine) and one or two of the carols werenít particularly well known, which the congregation struggled with at times.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
No sermon.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The choir. When they sang, in particular the women, it sent a shiver up the spine that took you straight to the holy throne room of heaven. Such singing is a rare thing, and it was a joy to be able to hear such quality. It was understandable that at the end of the service, the whole congregation broke out in applause.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Very little about the service was hellish, but I was constantly disturbed by a statue that was on one of the pillars nearby. It depicted a crusader in full body armour. This just didn't sit easily with me, as this worshipper doesn't like the glorification of war and in particular sees the Crusades as one of the most shameful episodes in the history of Christianity.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
We were invited to the basement for mulled wine and minced pies. I stood in a corner, nursing my wine for a short while before Father Gerald came over and introduced himself. We spoke for a short while before he introduced me to one of the readers, and we spoke further about the church.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
No coffee today, as the mulled wine sufficed. Indeed, it was possibly the best mulled wine I've ever had. Many are a bit gritty and overdone on the spices, but this was warming, smooth and tasty.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 – It was a beautiful service and the welcome was as warm as the mulled wine. I'd happily come back again.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Unquestionably.

Annunciation, Marble Arch (Altar)

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The choir, which was absolutely world class.
 
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