Sitting at a Pret across the street from the Victoria Underground Station, i took a sip of my latte and looked up, squealing in excitement. We had just finished going to mass at Westminster Cathedral, as I often tag along on Sundays with my Catholic friend Katie before we go to our Protestant church in the evening. This morning, Hannah had also joined us for the 9am mass. Uni life, am I right?
"I know we didn't know what we were gonna do between mass and church... there is a service at Westminster Abbey in 30 minutes?" I smile, somewhere between a joke and a serious curiosity. "Let's do it," Hannah replied without missing a beat. My kinda girl, that Hannah.
So that's when an already abnormal English Sunday turned into a full on "church-crawl." We figured on the way across town to Parliament Square that we could probably fit one more church service in after the High Anglican Eucharist mass. And sure enough, Hillsong's London campus had a service at 1:15pm. A perfect recipe for some cross-denominational study: Catholic, High Anglican, charismatic evangelical, and a recently church planted "low" church of England. Not inclusive of everything for sure, but an interesting anthropological opportunity nevertheless.
So what happened when we went to these four services throughout the day?
Church #1: Westminster Cathedral (Catholic Mass)
At this point in the day, we didn't know mass was going to turn into a whole-day affair, so I have very limited photos from the Cathedral. So, you're going to have to take my word for it that Westminster Cathedral is simply beautiful. The facade has immeasurable presence, a feat when you remember the building stands in competition with a host of famous places right near by that brings tourists flocking like swans. The inside is no different. I've said it before and I'll say it again- the Catholics sure know how to erect a Cathedral.
United by a common calendar and liturgy from Rome, Catholic Mass doesn't change drastically (or really, at all) wherever you are in the world. We did opt for the 9am unsung mass, which I later regretted. Love me a good organ sounding from the heavens above. Catholic mass can be a bit intimidating if you weren't raised in that tradition. Everyone pretty much knows when to stand, when to kneel, what to say, and when to say it. Of course, Katie was on top of each prayer and recitation like she had been born with the Apostles Creed flowing through her bones. I myself know a little bit of the mass- the Lord's Prayer is the same and I can get through most of the main creeds with just a bit of fumbling.
As a Protestant myself (though my mom always says 'why are we still calling ourselves that, what are we protesting? I'm not protesting anything'), some of the elements of the mass I have theological disagreements with. I don't take the Eucharist (Communion, Lord's Supper), since the Catholic belief of transubstantiation rejects my belief in salvation by grace alone. I don't do any of the prayers to Mary, because I don't feel a need to pray through someone else when I can just pray to God himself. But I have to say there is a certain amount of orderly magic in the cohesiveness of the Catholic mass. Saying the same words that you've grown up saying with a community of people around you who profess the same beliefs can be a wonderful reminder of the church as a body. I did, also, continually think of John Mulaney's bit about how the mass changed the liturgy to "And with your spirit." (Side note, if you haven't seen the Comeback Kid on Netflix yet, what are you doing?).
My biggest complaint with this service was just how short the homily was. The passage from the gospel was from Luke 13. The priest covered about 24 verses in under 7 minutes, which really just means I wasn't able to get as much out of it as I would have liked to. I know this was unusually short for a message, but in general I do believe the Catholic mass does tend to emphasise the readings and responses over the teaching of the passage itself. It's just very different from what I'm used to.
Church #2: Westminster Abbey (High anglican)
Westminster Abbey is directly right next door to Parliament, which means the three of us weaving through groups of confused tourists to try for the entrance for the 11:15am Eucharist service. I have to be upfront and tell you what my first thought was walking in through the doors to the church... WOW, those Anglicans really know how to design some robes. I mean seriously, there were a few variations (presumably depending on the role of the given person, but it just seemed like a line of some religious clothing to me), and each one was as epically magical as the next.
On a more serious note, the first difference I noticed immediately after coming from Catholic mass is the arrangement of the chapel area. At Westminster Abbey, congregants sit in two sections facing the other, rather than the typical seating/stage design of most places. The Boy's Choir as well was next to us rather than in front of anyone. I think this stems from a similar reason to why organs are usually out of sight- the emphasis on God being worshipped rather than the people involved in the ceremony. I did begrudgingly notice the 'better' reserved seats near the choir and made a joke about how our seats were for the common subjects. "What you're saying is you think you belong with the aristocracy up there," Katie bantered. Bit of truth to every joke...
I'm sure I don't have to tell you that the music at Westminster Abbey is more than lovely. The boys' angelic voices cry out the words in Latin and we could read the translations in our programs in front of us. I'm a sucker for some Gregorian chant, and a boys' choir singing ecclesiastical Latin in harmonious tones is my idea of a fun Tuesday night. We did remark how the compositions always seemed to turn one line of text into a six minute song, but I enjoyed it nevertheless. In a similar way to the Catholic mass, the calls and responses, and corporate singing of the hymns really did make me feel like I was part of a bigger community of Christians worshipping together. There's something really great I think people forget about the comfort and wonder simultaneously allowed for in an order of service.
Again, similar to the Catholic mass, there was an Old Testament Reading, Epistle Reading, and gospel reading. Believe it or not, the priests homily was on Luke 13 again! The similarity between these two services confused all of us. Makes me wonder what all this fighting between the Church of England and Catholics were about. The teaching priest surprised me with his message; not only was he an amazing speaker, but his words about the darkness of judgement but the wonder of grace was really compelling.
Hannah and I took communion here, while Katie went up for a blessing. "The body of Christ," the priest said. "Amen," I would reply before moving along in the line to the wine. Before leaving the service, we got to take a quick look at the cloisters next to the chapel. (It helps if you tell them you have to use the toilets, they'll direct you to a different exit and you get to see a bit more of the Abbey).
We left Westminster heading for Hillsong, discussing the history of the Church of England and the changes it went through with Queen Elizabeth the first. (As one does on the way to their third church service of the day).
Church #3: Hillsong (Australian Charistmatic evangelical)
If the events of Catholic and Anglican mass were surprisingly similar, nothing could have compared us for the drastic change as we walked into service at Hillsong. Hannah and I were a bit more familiar with the variety that exists within the Protestant church, and both of us have been to services more similar to the contemporary feel of Hillsong. But even we were a bit caught off guard with how different everything was. So you can only imagine how our resident Catholic felt.
For one thing, Hillsong isn't in a normal church building- it's in a West End theatre off Tottenham Court Road that has hosted shows such as Grease, An American Paris, and White Christmas. Katie's expression showed nothing but confusion as we walked into the 1:15pm service, where we greeted in darkness by the light, fog, and blaring guitar solo of the band on stage, who looked to be an early 2000s singing group complete with jean jackets, hoodies, baseball caps, and the energy of Justin Timberlake himself.
Far from the Westminster Abbey Boys' Choir, this band belted out pop-based harmonies like it was the X Factor. There was a certain amount of energy and genuine joy that you could not quite compare to a more traditional service. Around us, a wide-ranging generation of Londoners were dancing, putting their arms up into the air, and singing out about the love and grace of God. No one was worried about doing the 'right' thing or saying words wrong; there's no liturgy to get incorrect and all the words of the songs are flashed up on the screen behind the band. If I could describe the difference in religious 'effect' between the first two services and this third one- I think I would say the first two had a spirituality of "reverence" whereas Hillsong had a spirituality of "joy." I don't know if one is necessarily better than the other; surely God is big enough to handle both.
The biggest sadness for me in the Hillsong service was this: whereas in the first two I felt a sense of church community as the church responded together in unison or sang hymns echoing through the church building, the audio system of this theatre is so loud that I could barely hear myself sing, let alone the people around me. It was really an individual experience. You could do what you like and dance how you like, but in the darkness you can't completely see how the people around you are reacting and feel like you're part of something bigger with them communally.
The Hillsong service was mostly music- even in sections where someone came up to pray or when the pastor came up to preach, everything was sandwiched in between long songs of repeating choruses and bridges. It was also the longest service- about an hour and forty-five minutes.
Church #4: Euston Church (local, 'low' church of england)
I have to be pretty upfront about my particular bias towards Euston. It is my church, after all. But after a day of unfamiliar church orders and experiences, you wouldn't believe the comfort of home I felt walking into Euston's 5pm service in the middle of Bloomsbury.
Euston is somewhere between the ordered liturgy of a Catholic/High Anglican mass and the no-liturgy of the charismatic church. There's always pretty much a set amount of songs, a punctual time in which to offer greetings to your neighbor, a bit of call and response during communion and prayers. The music is less traditional than the hymns of Westminster Abbey; there's a guitar, keyboard, and box drum, but I can promise you, our music leaders don't seem to be planning on jumping around on stage anytime soon. It was really lovely after coming from Hillsong that I realised how much you can actually hear the congregation sing around you- a group of mostly students and young workers in this central London area.
And hey, believe it or not, for the third service in the day, the sermon was on Luke 13! (I'd actually love to do a blog post about how the three different sermons all approached the same passage pretty differently. Let me know if you'd be interested in that!).
Most of the University College London students had already left for holiday a few days ago, so the church wasn't as packed as usual. But, as usual, after the service ended, Hannah, Katie, and I grabbed food in the back (there's dinner after the evening service) and went to go tell all of our pastor friends about how crazy of a day we had visiting so many churches. We had had an exhaustingly long day, but ended up loitering around the church until about 8 or 9pm going around and remembering more people we had to talk to. We actually ended up being some of the last to leave at 9pm. 12 hours after we had begun at Westminster Cathedral in the morning.
After all, a church isn't really about what kind of songs you sing or what the facade of the building looks like. A church is the people, the community of people in the body of Christ that you get to interact with and grow in your faith with. Whether you subscribe to a particular faith or not, there's something to be said for people gathering together to share in life together. And when we get to do that with the joy we find in the hope of our Saviour, it makes our "church-crawl" an exhausting day with a redeeming premise.
Before I end this blog post, let me leave you with one thing. I think it's so wonderful how even within the very limited scope of these London churches, how I was able to see the diversity of tradition and plurality in how people relate to their beliefs differently. We were made differently and come from different cultures, surely it makes sense that the way we worship could be different too! Katie, Hannah, and I have already started planning our next #churchcrawl for May when we get back from break. What churches do you think we should include? Let me know!
Also feel free to check out Katie's blog www.theamericaninlondon!
Disclaimer: I chose to focus mostly on the services themselves rather than my theological interpretation of the services and the scriptural content of their messages. That blog post would be a separate, and probably way more controversial one, but I'm happy to do it if people are curious!