St Andrew's Chapel, Camp Hamworthy

St Andrew's Chapel at Royal Marines Poole, Poole, Dorset, England


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Andrew's Chapel at Royal Marines Poole
Location: Poole, Dorset, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 31 March 2013, 10:30am

The building

It is a low, one-storey, one-room building, with a new annex with toilets, a kitchen and offices. The space is carpeted. On the liturgical east wall there is a cross that appears to be lighted by a skylight. There is a retable, a shelf on the wall, with five or six fat candles. A large oval altar stands clear of the east wall, with two more fat candles. There is a also a stand with votive candles burning. About 30 chairs were arranged in an oval with the altar at one of the tight axes. At the other end of the oval there were five or six rows of chairs arranged facing the altar in a more "churchlike" way. The base of the font, a large round structure like the oval altar, was circled with children's toy cars and trucks. (There would be a baptism later on that day – my son-in-law's first cousin's child.)

The church

The chapel is within the Royal Marines base and is for the private use of those stationed there as well as their families. I was able to be admitted only as part of my family's christening party. Passports had to be shown.

The neighborhood

Poole, in Dorset on England's southwest coast, is blessed with a large natural harbour and so the port is quite busy – in addition to being home to the Royal Marines base, Poole also hosts the Royal National Lifeboat Institution plus cross-channel freight and passenger ferries. During the Second World War, the town was one of the main departing points for the D-Day landings of the Normandy Invasion. The base, originally established in 1942 as Royal Air Force Camp Hamworthy, was taken over by the Marines in 1954.

The cast

The service was taken by the Revd Michael Hills, MBE, a Royal Navy chaplain.

What was the name of the service?

Holy Eucharist

How full was the building?

Standing room only at about 50 people, of whom about 15 were children.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

When I got out of the car with my camera around my neck, a number of well-meaning people (none of them Marines or officially associated with the RM) told me I'd better not take any pictures or "the man with the gun" would get me! The padre, vested in alb and cincture, was shaking hands at the door. Several parishioners were handing out service leaflets. All were welcoming.

Was your pew comfortable?

The usual wooden church chairs.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Loving pandemonium of parents chattering and children running around, encouraged by Father Hills, who said, more than once, "We don't restrain the children too much here."

What were the exact opening words of the service?

At service time, Father Hills came forward and said, "We usually have some pre-service music while everyone quietens down." He then started a CD of a movement from one of Bach's suites for unaccompanied cello. While this was playing, he put on his chasuble. After the music ended, there was a pause, and then: "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

A leaflet containing one of the eucharistic services from Common Worship. There was also a hymnal with lots of both traditional and modern hymns. I can't be more specific, as at the singing of the first hymn, Donald Fishel's "Alleluia, Alleluia, Give Thanks to the Risen Lord", I lost it emotionally because (1) it was Easter; (2) all the wonderful children were swirling around my feet; and (3) I'd had a sinus infection for a week and was running on codeine!

What musical instruments were played?

The hymn was accompanied on an electronic organ by a volunteer. Bless her, she was doing the best she could.

Did anything distract you?

When my daughter had proposed that I come to England for Easter, I got all excited about traditional C of E worship on Easter. Then my daughter dropped the bomb: "We'll be worshipping at the Marine chapel. Maybe you'd like to arrange the schedule so you can worship at home." As my home church is a place I can easily miss, I hesitated. In the end, she hooked me with, "When we were there last Easter, I had the most spiritual experience in church I've ever had." So I was pretty much distraction-proof; I had made my mind up to give this a try.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

The worship was family-style, informal, happy: no nonsense, no foolishness, no choir, no smells or bells. Any problems were of our making, not the church's. Father Hills followed the book with a rigour and precision that would have brightened the heart of Percy Dearmer. At the same time, everything was warm and friendly. Father Hills is what we would call in the American South a "football priest": a powerful manly man with the build of a football player and no suggestion of sissiness, yet his hand gestures throughout the eucharist were delicate and dear and beautiful. He was poetry to watch!

Exactly how long was the sermon?

10 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

10 – Father Hills walked the room and talked to us, with only an occasional glimpse at a note card in the palm of his hand.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

His text was Luke 24:4 (two men in shining garments greet the women at Jesus' tomb). Following Jesus is one surprise after another; things are never what we expect. (Whereupon he pulled up his alb to reveal a pair of drawstring, rainbow-striped floppy trousers! He had the children's attention from then on.)

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

Crying with joy. Seeing so many children in church.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

The choice of stops on the electronic organ. It would almost have been better to have the singing nuns with their guitars from the 1960s folk mass.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

The whole congregation were eager that my family should come and have biscuits and tea in the other building. And not only did they bring it to us, but they brought the pot around offering more.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Supermarket real brewed tea in china cups, and supermarket biscuits.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

10 – If I could be assured of getting past the man with the gun.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

Alleluia! Yes!

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

All the little children, the hope of the world and the church.

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