Our visit to Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, took place on a Sunday when no trains were running from Amersham! So, we drove over to West Ruislip and picked up the Central Line there. It’s an odd feeling travelling into London early on a Sunday morning; us making our way to church wondering where everyone else is going!
Central Hall stands opposite Westminster Abbey and was opened in 1912.
I’ve been there many times for conferences and assemblies, but this was my first visit for ‘Methodist’ worship.
It doesn’t really look like a church; indeed, the impressive central staircase is modelled on the one at the Paris Opera House. It was deliberately built to look like a conference centre; to be a welcoming and inclusive space for everyone, regardless of faith.
On Sunday mornings the worship takes place in The Great Hall on the first floor, which seats, with the balcony some 2,400. On Sunday I suspect there were more like 200 of us, yet it didn’t feel empty. The balcony isn’t used, and the stage brings forward those leading the worship so that there is a comfortable intimacy between platform and congregation.
Sunday’s music consisted of a splendid organ, played by an equally splendid organist, a robed choir of some 17 voices, a pianist, drummer and trumpeter! This eclectic blend was of the highest standard, all overseen by Gerard Brooks, the church’s current Director of Music who is also The President of The Royal College of Organists at the moment.
We started with a Wesley hymn: Ye servants of God, and then the service followed a typical non-conformist pattern. Much of it was led by The Revd Tony Miles, who is soon to take over as Superintendent Minister, assisted by a young woman Deacon, Ali McMillan, who gave the children’s address and led the intercessions.
The choir sang an introit by W.Lloyd Webber, father of the famous ‘Andrew’, and one time organist of Central Hall!
The sermon, based on The Baptism of Christ, focused on love and being loved. It was followed by an immensely poignant hymn by the modern hymn writer Michael Foster entitled Let love be real. We’ll be singing it soon at AFC!!
As we arrived at church we were greeted with such warmth and showed to the room where coffee is served both before and after the service. People came over and chatted to us immediately – seeming genuinely pleased we were there!
The congregation at Central Hall is truly multi- cultural. We were told that many of the worshippers have family back in Ghana and Nigeria, places where Methodism is, even now, very strong.
As with our visit to Pont Street last month, we realised that almost everyone had travelled in to the service. We spoke to someone from Reading and another from Southend. There is great commitment in these central London congregations.
In 2002, when the Midland Bank vacated part of the ground floor of Central Hall, a beautiful ‘Chapel’, seating 180, was built, enabling the congregation to have dedicated space for both Sunday evenings and weekdays, even when the rest of the building is being hired out for conference users.
Surprisingly, many activities were listed for midweek on the notice sheet. This is not just a Sundays only congregation! One of the most encouraging was a group called ‘Sanctuary, which welcomes some 20 young adults for an informal midweek service in the Chapel.
I don’t think either of us will forget the wonderful ‘buzz’ in the coffee room after service. Way over 100 people stayed sitting at tables, with a great ethnic mix, chatting and catching up. You could feel the love and sincerity of these people, a community that brings warmth and integrity to central London.
We came away feeling so encouraged and buoyed up. The welcome we received was brilliant and the sense of God’s presence truly palpable.