Mystery Worshipper: Cool Dude
Church: Farm Street
Location: Mayfair, London
Date of visit: Sunday, 10 July 2022, 5:30pm
Behind the tall but narrow front on Farm Street lies and impressively large building of 1844-49 by the prominent Catholic church architect JJ Scoles. There is a rear entrance to Mount Street Gardens, which is at least as much used by the congregation. Since it was completed, the gothic revival church has been fairly enthusiastically embellished and elaborated by other architects and church decorators, right up to the 1950s, when the Farm Street frontage was reconfigured. There are multiple side chapels, a good deal of religious imagery, some of very high quality, elaborate marble finishes and good stained glass. It is all richly harmonious and impressive.
Popularly known as Farm Street or the London Jesuits on account of the main house of the Society of Jesus being next door, it is more formally dedicated as the Roman Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception, Farm Street. The Jesuits founded the church and sustain it as a parish for which they provide priests. Since 1966, it has been a parish in its own right, with a notably gathered and cosmopolitan congregation.
Mayfair is the most expensive square on the UK Monopoly board – and with good reason. The many 18th century town houses locally were built by the rich and aristocratic, and are still owned by the rich. A few of them are the same old-money families who have hung onto their real estate. But much of Mayfair is new money, including more than a few ‘unexplained fortunes’. Interspersed are five-star luxury hotels. If you are not yourself rich, Mayfair can be a slightly unwelcoming place unless you enjoy wealth voyeurism.
The priest, lay assistants, and a small choral group and pianist.
What was the name of the service?Post-Pride Mass at Farm Street.
How full was the building?
I would guess about 140, although it was slightly difficult to tell as people were coming and going during the Mass. We were spread out across the church, which is large. We comprised an impressive mixture of dressed up and casual, old and young, and ethnically diverse. Presumably on this day, of diverse sexualities too.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
There was a welcomer on duty who turned out to be part of LGBT+Westminster, who greeted me and gave me the paperwork.
Was your pew comfortable?
An old school varnished pine affair, solid, with a very generous gap between pew and kneeler, so that even the doddery could – and did – kneel without difficulty for the consecration.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The choir were rehearsing a bit to begin with, but otherwise it was quiet, contemplative, and comfortable.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
‘In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.’
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Laudate hymn book, Mass sheet with the sung Mass, and a service sheet.
What musical instruments were played?
Piano, or possibly keyboard. It was positioned amidst the choir and was amplified, as were the choir.
Did anything distract you?
At one point, the Jesuit brothers in the adjoining building must have been singing their evening office in their own chapel, and a loud clanking bell ringing the Angelus made the sermon even more difficult to hear than it already was.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
A modern sung Mass, not solemn, with members of the congregation (for this week members of LGBT+Westminster) assisting the sole priest. On this hot afternoon in a heatwave, the lay participants’ dress code was casual, going on beach. We sung several worship songs, mostly from the Laudate hymn book. The first of these was ‘All are welcome’, appropriate to the billing of the Mass on the London Pride website as a post-Pride event. The service also functioned as an ordinary parish Mass for regulars at Farm Street, so the welcome was inclusive to all, as it should be. I noticed that everyone without exception genuflected on entering and leaving the pews, but also that nobody crossed themselves at the consecration of the bread or wine, or at the other traditional moments. I am not a great fan of most modern worship songs, and I’m afraid the ones chosen for this Mass were too sentimental for me. ‘Make me a channel of thy peace’ was among them and this setting of the prayer of St Francis always makes me think of a building supplies yard. Surely St Francis deserves a kinder updating.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 — I might have made that higher than 7 had I heard it all. The preacher had an appealing, soft and caring voice, but in spite of the sound system it was at times difficult to hear him in the resonant church.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
He preached on the text of the day, the Good Samaritan, and interpreted Christ’s final injunction to ‘go and do likewise’ as a challenge to us about our personal Christian mission. The parish is active in reaching out to people who are homeless and trafficked, and has already taken on board the findings of the Pope’s consultation with lay people worldwide, ‘For a Synodal Church’, by being more welcoming to women, the LGBT+ community, and migrant communities in London.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Stepping into the very lofty church. The building was cool and so refreshing, when outside it was a scorching summer afternoon.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
At the social after Mass I spoke to two men from Spain who were combatting a conservative Spanish bishop suspected of covertly supporting conversion therapy for gay men and lesbians under the cover of ‘spiritual guidance’.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
During the notices, we were invited by the priest to drinks afterwards in the Arupe Hall, which is in the next building, but far from obvious. I managed to find it.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was tea, coffee, cakes, red wine, a couple of speeches, friendly chat, and a round of Happy Birthday for one of the regulars.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 — There was an embracing welcome for this Anglican.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes – the prayerful atmosphere and cosmopolitan congregation were really lovely.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
Words from the first hymn. Great poetry they are not, but they are a simple and powerful statement of intent which this Mass lived out:
Let us build a house where love is found
In water, wine and wheat:
A banquet hall on holy ground
Where peace and justice meet.