In spite of not having a tower, the large Abbey Church of St Benedict makes quite an impression in the suburban backstreet. It was designed by the Victorian architect Frederick Arthur Walters, known for his Catholic churches. The first bays were opened in 1899, with further bays and the crossing added slowly bit by bit as funds allowed. These were by the same architect, followed by his son, then his successors, so the piecemeal construction is not at all obvious today. Finally, the monks’ choir beyond the crossing and an ingenious new chapel beside it were added in 1996 by Sir William Whitfield, known for his brutalist style. Due to how the land falls away, the entrance is at the top of a daunting flight of steps. The lofty interior of the church is impressive: long and dignified, under a hammer beam roof. At the west, over the entrance, is a spectacular stained glass window of the Coronation of the Virgin by Burlison & Grylls, one of the most highly regarded stained glass firms in the country. In the south transept is a memorial window to victims of both World Wars (the church was damaged in the second War) by Bucknall and Comper, whose work was usually for Anglicans. This features a large depiction of the Risen Christ in the designers' characteristic manner: buff, beardless and modern.
The worshipping community seems to be both local and gathered, no doubt partly assisted by the two successful associated schools alongside. On one side of the big church is the monks' enclosure. On the other side is a parish centre and – if the weekly service sheet is anything to go by – there are quite a lot of parish activities, both religious and social, during the week. The monastic community seems to comprise thirteen monks at the moment.
All around are the leafier suburbs of Ealing, which has quite a sizable Indian population. The large houses in the streets near the abbey are mostly converted into flats, but it remains a prosperous area. There are many trees and well kept gardens.
The celebrant (who I think was the abbot), the monks in their stalls beyond the crossing, a powerful men’s choir of six, and quite a few young altar boys.
What was the name of the service?Mass with the Monastic Community and Abbey Choir.
How full was the building?
About 250 in a nave that could accommodate three or four times that number. I heard Polish and Portuguese spoken and there was a good measure of ethnic diversity in the pews. There were few small children present, but the mass that had started 15 minutes earlier in the adjacent hall had provision for children, so I guess many parents attended that.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
I saw nobody on duty. One or two others looked slightly lost too. Eventually I found the service sheets for the day on one of several tables and sat just in time to stand for the procession.
Was your pew comfortable?
A traditional pew, both comfortable and comforting in a solid pew-like way.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
I arrived in the nick of time so am not the best judge, but I would say quiet and reverent, just how I like it.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
Miserere mihi Domine ..., the introit, sung in Latin by the choir.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Two service sheets. I think we were supposed to have a hymn book too, but I completely missed those when searching for the service sheets. In fact, most of the congregation seemed to be without.
What musical instruments were played?
Organ (though much of the service was unaccompanied and the organist didn’t have a great deal to do).
Did anything distract you?
The end of the mass turned out to be a bit of a slow fade. The final hymn was ‘Glorious things of you are spoken' – which ought to be a solid crowd pleaser to bring down the curtain. The organ accompanied, and the six men of the abbey choir were giving terrific value as they recessed from their far-distant stalls down the nave. But like me, few had found the hymn books – and one or two who had weren't using them. Roman Catholics so often dislike singing hymns – maybe it’s the associations of Luther or Wesley or other left-field figures. Anyway, as soon as the choir were in the vestry, there was no hymn singing to be heard, and the organist valiantly played the last two verses of the hymn unaccompanied as though for a phantom congregation. During these unsung verses, a good third of the congregation genuflected and left the church.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
A straight-up solemn modern Catholic mass, with only one hymn. The monks were visible – just – in their stalls beyond the crossing, which is where the small but powerful abbey choir also had their stalls.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 — The preacher kept to a small number of powerfully made points. No personal anecdotes, jokes or theatrics – and all the better for it. This was not the most exciting sermon I have heard in the last few months, but it was both sound and clear.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
He started with the gospel reading of the day, Luke 14:7-14, in which Jesus urges us to give up the place of honour at a wedding feast and to invite the poor and crippled to our own dinners. But he moved rapidly on to the theology of the feast that is the mass. ‘Here there will be a glimpse of where our Christianity comes from. Here will be made present the power and the love of God, not a symbol but the reality … That is what Christ promised us and is what the church has stayed faithful to.’ He lamented the fact that tens of millions of Catholics in the US and UK had turned their backs on that truth.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The long silence after communion. Everyone had got back to their seats and settled and we were still and silent. I do like a long communal silence, especially at that point in the liturgy. Too often has my wish for one frustrated by a celebrant in a hurry – but not here. The Gloria, sung by the six men of the abbey choir was pretty special too – a setting by Francisco Guerrero (1528-1599).
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Not at all hellish, just a droll moment of humanity in the well-oiled liturgy. Having blessed the elements of the mass, the celebrant was ready for his pre-consecration ablutions. He waited for the altar boys to appear alongside him with a bowl of water and towel, but came there none. After a few seconds more, he looked directly offstage to where the altar boys presumably were, but none budged. Then he beckoned to them patiently, but still without result. Finally he said a very loud 'Pssst!' heard by us all over the sound system, and two sheepish little boys trotted on with the necessaries.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
There was a lot of chatter in the parish centre, and outside, at both the front and back entrance, but I didn’t see or smell any coffee. The shrine of Our Lady and the Blessed Sacrament side chapel were the focus of a good deal of devotion. I think the children's mass in the hall next door finished at the same time, hence it was quite busy. Nobody spoke to me, but I could have made myself known to the welcome desk for new parishioners, which did indeed look welcoming and would have produced a better result than following my Mystery Worshipper instructions simply to look lost.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
As far as I know there was none on offer.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
6 — It’s the other side of town for me but there was much to like. If I return I shall hunt out a hymn book and SING – even if , as seems likely, I am the only one in the building to join the organ accompaniment.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The Guerrero Gloria.