Petronella Wyatt

Song of praise

The ongoing escapades of London's answer to Ally McBeal

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I went to church last Sunday. This will surprise some of my friends. I am not noted as a regular attender of Church of England services. This is not because I don't believe in God. But our relationship has always been a private one. One in which He or I can make our excuses and leave.

Not that I haven't been inside plenty of churches. I have always had a great interest in them architecturally. There is an extraordinary beauty and felicity in driving through a country village during the summer and coming across a simple, 12th- century church. There is no light like that which shines through stained glass; all the best efforts of Hollywood in its golden age could not surpass it.

In London I used to attend church at Christmas, usually on Christmas Eve. There is a pretty Georgian chapel in South Audley Street where John Wilkes is buried. I wonder if the vicar ever realised that was the reason I was there. I hope not.

But my local church in St John's Wood has always been easy on the eye. It stands opposite a statue of St George and the dragon. The building is neo-classical, with white columns and an ochre fa’ade. I have sometimes sat inside on my own, in a cocoon of dazzling whiteness. The windows are not stained glass, but the interior has a greater purity because of it.

Anyway, last Sunday I decided to attend a service there. There was to be a sung Eucharist at 11 in the morning. I suspected I was a sung Eucharist kind of girl – the more music the better. And the service at 8 was far too early for a Sunday morning.

I had heard that the choir was particularly good and that the vicar, the Revd Dr Anders Bergquist, did not bang on. Although it was spitting with rain, there was a promise of warm sunshine, so I trotted off in a fairly elevated mood.

On arrival at the church, I was greeted by a curate or someone who said, 'Are you a visiting churchwarden from another parish come to be ordained here?' Eh? I was tempted to say yes, but guessed this would cause unwarranted and unfair confusion when it came to the ordainment ceremony, so I shook my head. Still, it was a compliment of sorts.

By the time the clergy arrived there were about 40 people in the congregation. The church can hold 400. But this is what is happening to Anglican churches throughout the country. Usually they are blamed for being too old-fashioned and failing to attract more young people. But if young people don't try, how will they know?

I could have walked away from that service, bored out of my mind, gone to the pub, and determined never to go back. But this is not what happened. Suddenly the choir began to sing Gounod's Messe Solennelle. It blew me away. The soprano, a pretty young girl with an elfin face, could have been singing at Covent Garden. The baritone and the tenor weren't half bad either. I had never heard such singing in a church. It crashed like a bolt through my body. I sat upright in the pew, dazed with a weird excitement.

As a singer of sorts, I can tell you that singing is a spiritual as well as a physical experience. This may be because it has been medically proven that singing floods the brain with serotonin, but it also takes one to a higher plane. My singing teacher often cautions me about crossing the road after lessons on the grounds that my head will be in the clouds and I might be run over.

Listening to great music, exquisitely performed, has the same effect. By the end I was prepared to stay for anything, even a one-hour sermon about the Third World. Instead, the address, given by the Archdeacon of Charing Cross, actually taught you things you didn't know. It was on the provenance of names. It was a free history lesson and much more interesting than some of the ones I had at school.

Moreover, I knew all the hymns. Meaning they were traditional and had proper tunes. I think the Church is quite wrong when it assumes that the young only want to hear cacophanous guitar and tambourine-bashing. If this were the case why do so many of them queue up for the Last Night of the Proms to sing 'Jerusalem' and 'Land Of Hope And Glory'? The British like to sing, even if they deny they can, but they like to sing things they know. If they played Elton John in church, that might be a different matter. But guitars and tambourines and tunelessness will get the Church nowhere.

In any case, there is a growing interest among the young in classical music. When I go to English National Opera it is teeming with young people who have come to listen to Verdi or Mozart. Classical music has become cool again. So why are our clergy so afraid of it?

The choir of St John's Wood church sang time and time again and it was unalloyed bliss. Except when my mother suddenly appeared in the middle of a psalm, attracting everyone's attention in a weird white raincoat to tell me in a loud voice that she was going to Waitrose.

'Go away,' I hissed. 'This is a church service. You can't barge in and just stop it.'

'Oh,' she said, surprised, 'I von't do it again. Sorry.' She scooted out.

If nothing else, going to church is one way of getting rid of the parent on a Sunday. I am going back next week.