St Mary's, Old Hunstanton

St Mary’s, Old Hunstanton, Norfolk, England


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Mary’s, Old Hunstanton
Location: Norfolk, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 26 May 2024, 10:45am

The building

A church has stood on this spot for very nearly a millennium. This one dates originally from the 14th century, majorly restored in 1853. The building is a solid Norfolk archetype. Built in local chased flint and stone, it's in large part a celebration of the local aristocracy, the Le Strange family, whose eclectic acquisitions over centuries have embellished the church. Still in use is an 11th century font, while an unusual stained-glass window celebrating Le Strange free-masonic affiliations illuminates the south-west corner of the nave. It is, as so many Norfolk rural churches are, vastly oversized for its modern community.

The church

St Mary's is well known locally for its annual flower festival, during which the church interior is a riot of colours and scents, which combines with a traditional village fete.

The neighborhood

Old Hunstanton is a seaside village, overshadowed by the much larger adjacent resort town of Hunstanton, which was created by Henry Le Strange in the mid-19th century. Set back and up from the sea, in its own picturesque grounds and with manor, cottages and duckpond close by, it might seem as though little has changed in hundreds of years.

The cast

The parish is currently in vacancy. The preacher and celebrant was a retired priest living locally; he was assisted during the sermon by two women from the congregation.

What was the name of the service?

Holy Communion for Trinity Sunday.

How full was the building?

Two dozen people fitted into about 300 seats, sharing the space with a number of unseen – but definitely not unheard – jackdaws who had taken over the nave clerestory. Being nesting birds, and the nave rather high, no attempt to remove them was practicable for the time being. Several of the pews were covered with a large plastic sheet against droppings.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Outside the church, everyone arriving was warmly greeted by the ducks from the village pond, who clustered around our feet in the hope of feeding. They were rarely disappointed; the local congregation know them well. Inside, I was straight away given welcome and the necessary books. Once I'd found a place, three other members of the congregation introduced themselves and inquired after my health, asked whether I was on holiday, and chatted with me about the church family until the start of the service. It felt very natural and welcoming.

Was your pew comfortable?

Wooden pews with unusually low backs, long cushions and pretty comfortable.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

The congregation arrived in dribs and drabs; everyone seemed to know each other and a hum of conversation was the background noise to the resident birds' calling.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

'Good morning everybody, and welcome.'

What books did the congregation use during the service?

BBC Songs of Praise Hymnbook and Common Worship books. Pew bibles were the New International Version.

What musical instruments were played?

The church has a fine organ, so it was sad not to find that played. The last organist left a full set of CD recordings for the entire hymn book, and those were used to accompany the hymns. It seemed to me that the penultimate line of each verse slowed up a little... though maybe I was rushing the singing. The jackdaws were particularly full-throated while we sang. Either they didn't like our efforts, or everything that had breath was praising the Lord.

Did anything distract you?

Next to the traditional board carrying the hymn numbers in black, there was a smaller one with red numbers. I spent some time puzzling what it was for, having quickly deciphered ‘CW’ as the order of service. Only at the end of communion did I realise it was indicating the pew Bible pages for the readings and Gospel.

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

The memory of past glories suffuses this place. Choir, organ, bells and smells are gone – as have incumbent clergy. The remnant congregation sings as lustily as numbers will permit while following an inadequately-amplified organ track. Common worship is... well, common worship. Communion was taken standing, the celebrant dipping the wafer into the wine before handing it over.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

13 minutes.

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

8 — The preacher had a calming Norfolk accent, which nevertheless was nicely audible through the church. He presented a short sketch with the help of two women from the congregation, asking how can the Trinity fit with monotheism? This kind of thing often risks embarrassing all parties present, but here seemed very natural and appropriate.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

As it was Trinity Sunday, the preacher had started the service with an anecdote of a local child riding her tricycle through the nave. He then brought up several other three-in-one analogies before declaring them to be blind alleys which seek to illustrate, but often obscure, the truth. Ultimately, God presents to us as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and all three must be with us together, in order that God's purpose for us may be fulfilled.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

Oddly, and distraction though they were, the birds singing along with us in praise.

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

The air of sadness expressed by almost everyone. ‘We're not allowed to speak of interregnum any more. It's a vacancy.’ There were no young people in this congregation, and given the current age profile, in 20 years there will be no church here. Unless...

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

We all went to the back of the church for refreshments. Sitting at tables and encouraged to join in the conversation about the desire for renewal in this rather splendidly named Hunstanton and Saxon Shore Benefice. A great fund of individual stories of faith, with former Roman Catholics, Baptists and Strict and Particulars all in the congregation, having found their home here.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Tea and coffee in china cups, biscuits and left-over chocolate eggs – ‘We've still got hundreds from Easter – have some more.’

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

9 — I do hope a new clergy team is appointed soon. It would be glorious to come back to invigorated optimism.

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 birds.

Photo by Brokentaco under CC BY 2.0

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