St Mary Magdalene, Paddington, London

St Mary Magdalene, Paddington, London


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Mary Magdalene
Location: Paddington, London
Date of visit: Sunday, 13 November 2022, 9:30am

The building

A richly decorated Victorian neo-Gothic gem. According to the detailed architectural notes on the church website, St Mary’s was founded in 1865 in the Paddington slum district, and built by George Edmund Street, a leader of the the Victorian Gothic Revival. Street was also working on the Royal Courts of Justice at the time the church was built. The interior is very tall, lit by clerestory windows, and has an enormous crypt and a needle spire. For more detail, see ‘Did anything distract you?' below.

The church

Your correspondent lived in the area 40 years ago. Things were at a low ebb and the church faced possible closure. New, imaginative leadership has saved it from a terrible fate, building a new community centre, and keeping its strongly Anglo-Catholic tradition.

The neighborhood

The neighbourhood consists almost entirely of council housing. There is a mixture of building heights, but the area includes some bleak tower blocks from the 1960s, probably the worst period of public housing design in Britain. Immediately abutting the church is the Grand Union Canal. The housing on the other side of the canal is of better quality, and properties there are sought after when they come onto the market.

The cast

If I heard correctly, the celebrant was a visiting priest, known to congregation, and was assisted by a server who doubled as thurifer. Two members of the congregation read, and a third sang the responsorial psalm and Gospel acclamation.

What was the name of the service?

Sung Mass for the Second Sunday before Advent, also Remembrance Sunday.

How full was the building?

There were about 20 people.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

One of the greeters was in conversation with another arrival as I came in. The other greeter handed me a sheet, saying, 'You will need this for the Remembrance service.'

Was your pew comfortable?

Individual chairs, ergonomically designed for human bottoms, very comfortable.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Quiet and prayerful, with one or two subdued conversations.

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?

The New English Hymnal, and a privately printed sheet with the text of the modern Eucharist. I am not Anglican but guess the text was from Common Worship.

What musical instruments were played?

A full-throated organ was played with verve for our three hymns and the sung parts of the Mass.

Did anything distract you?

St Mary’s is a busy church in the sense that everywhere your eye rests there is an artistic detail to ponder and admire. Statues in canopied niches, Victorian tiled floors, paintings, a coloured porphyry marble pulpit soaring above us... The square mensa altar was at the top of the chancel steps, literally above our heads. Beyond it the candles glittered at the old high altar, where the gloom hinted at mysteries beyond our comprehension.

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

A dignified Anglo-Catholic Mass, with good congregational participation in singing and responses. Small in number, I thought, but big in spirit. The liturgy ended with a sung Angelus.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

14 minutes

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

5 — Oh dear. I feel mean about the score, as the sermon had clearly been well prepared and was spoken with care for its delivery. But read on ...

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Did we know the right way to wear the Remembrance poppy? The green leaf should be pointing to 11, reminding us that the guns of the First World War fell silent at 11 am of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. The priest's mother had been born that day, and was named Victory. His father served on HMS Victorious. He then mentioned the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire, before describing the London memorials to the Royal Artillery and the Machine Gun Corps, which reminded us starkly of the anguish suffered by the soldiers. In fact, seeing the memorial had moved the founder of the Society of the Sacred Mission to commission the artist to do the hanging rood for the chapel at Kelham, which had been damaged after being left outside a priory when the college closed, but was now indoors and restored. There was more in the same vein, but I lost the thread. I caught at least two mentions of Christ's resurrection, but otherwise I was left baffled by how the sermon related to the readings.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

I glanced upward several times and found the wagon-roof ceiling high above me covered with golden cherubic faces. It felt heavenly.

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

After the service we went outside to lay a wreath at the war memorial. A car parked nearby had its radio blaring. I asked the driver to turn it off. She seemed surprised, but did so with good will. I was struck by the fact that she did not recognise a prayerful occasion despite the vested priest, nor, I suspect, know about Remembrance Sunday.

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

After a short prayer and the laying of the wreath, we had a two-minute silence. It felt profound and deeply moving. Then everybody turned and went straight back into the church.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

I think refreshments were available in the church. If anyone had spoken to me I would have joined them, but the sudden turning of backs as they all headed indoors was disconcerting, and anyway I was afraid that if I went I would be outed, so I simply left.

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

8 — I would love to visit again, but wonder if I would be welcome after this report.

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

Yes. A good-hearted congregation is sustaining a wonderful house of God.

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

The profound silence at the end of the Remembrance Sunday prayers.

Image: David Iliff under CC BY-SA 3.0

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