Mystery Worshipper: Episcopus
Church: St Mary Magdalen
Location: Oxford, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 12 March 2023, 10:30am
Originally a Saxon church built of wood, the current building dates from the turn of the 13th century, when it was rebuilt by St Hugh, Bishop of Lincoln. The church has had extensive additions and remodelling since then, including restoration by George Gilbert Scott and William Bonython Moffatt in 1841-42, who removed the Norman chancel arch. The building took its current form during the early 19th century Oxford Movement, when the polychrome reredos was added.
A geographically tiny parish – the CofE parish boundaries map puts the area of the parish at just one-tenth of a square mile! – the congregation nonetheless attracts people from all walks of life: young families, students and professors at the University of Oxford, and retirees.
The church is situated in the middle of a bustling urban area, right at the north end of the pedestrianized part of St Aldate’s and around the corner from the Ashmolean Museum. Interestingly, there are two other Church of England institutions within one block's walking distance from St Mary Magdalen: the traditionalist catholic Pusey House, and the Church of St Michael at the North Gate, the official civic church for the City of Oxford.
The curate preached the sermon; the assisting priest celebrated the Mass; the rector served as deacon. There was a full complement of vested servers (torches, crucifer, thurifer), and a lay reader. An organist and cantor provided music from the west gallery.
What was the name of the service?High Mass
How full was the building?
Probably 60 percent full in the nave.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes, an usher handed me a hymn book, service sheet, and notice sheet with a smile as I came through the door.
Was your pew comfortable?
Standard pew fare. Comfortable enough for the hour-long service, though admittedly it was by no means my couch.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quiet and reverential. I noticed that a number of people – including young people – prayed at the statue of Our Lady, and some other ritual (perhaps Mattins or the Rosary) was finishing in the Lady Chapel as I entered.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
‘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 service booklet containing the Order One Eucharist (traditional language) from Common Worship, a service sheet with the propers, hymns and announcements, and the text-only version of the New English Hymnal.
What musical instruments were played?
Organ. No choir, as it is mostly comprised of the university students on break, according to the vicar, but a solo cantor sang a Bach aria at communion.
Did anything distract you?
A good distraction – a toddler was roaming around the church during the service. I had a sotto voce chuckle as he attempted to mount the pulpit or follow the sacred ministers to the altar for the Canon of the Mass.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Anglo-Catholic. The service was Common Worship Order One in traditional language; the celebrant faced east and wore a fiddleback chasuble; lots of incense; and prayers to Our Lady before the closing voluntary and coffee.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
Approximately 12 minutes.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 — I enjoyed the curate's opening anecdote: ‘As Fr Peter has said before, the woman at the well was the first Anglo-Catholic: she's asked a question on ethics, and immediately changes the subject to a question about liturgy.’ Her ability to make self-deprecating jokes about Anglo-Catholic sensibilities were, to this Anglo-Catholic, both humorous and thought-provoking.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
We can identify, as Christians, with the woman at the well. We, as Anglicans, tend to avoid some of the uncomfortable questions. Although it might seem like a rote recitation of words week in and week out, liturgy is important, and part of the living water which Christ and the church gives to us. Yet we must also be attentive to the world around us and seek our unity in God.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Despite there being no choir – indeed, the vicar apologized to me upon learning that I work as a church organist – the congregational singing was absolutely wonderful. And coming from low church Virginia, a proper High Mass in traditional Anglo-Catholic style was very refreshing.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
While all the other liturgical ministers had vested, the organist and cantor, perhaps because they were in the west gallery, were dressed quite informally in street clothes. It seemed out of place given how seriously proper vesture and ritual was taken by the altar party. Out of sight, yes, but only until someone turns around.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I was greeted and quickly ushered to the coffee hour queue. Upon hearing I was visiting and from Virginia, a kind lady introduced me to the vicar, who also warmly greeted me.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Biscuits, tea and coffee. I don't drink coffee or tea and thus didn't partake of it, but the biscuits (store-bought) were adequate.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
10 — I would happily return should I find myself in Oxford again.
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 child trying to mount the pulpit, which brings to mind Lesbia Scott's immortal words: ‘They were all of them saints of God, and I mean, God helping to be one too.’