Mystery Worshipper: Jonah & the Whale
Church: St Michael & All Angels
Location: Beckenham, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 27 August 2017, 11:00am
It was rebuilt in 1955 after a fire, and not much remains of the original. The new building is wide and uncluttered, with some beautiful stained glass. I understand plans are afoot to modernise, with the installation of a proper kitchen and toilets.
They describe themselves on their website as "a warm and friendly church in the Catholic tradition of the Church of England." The first thing we noticed was a box for food bank items standing outside the church. There were further collection points inside. A lot of effort appears to be going into drawing people into the church, currently. They have Monday coffee mornings. They also have cafe church, described as "hymns, prayers and Bible readings in an informal setting with refreshments," the third Sunday afternoon of each month (usually). There is a sung mass each Sunday and said masses on each weekday except Wednesday and Friday.
Beckenham is a district in south London. There is standard south London housing and good public transport links (no fewer than nine rail stations!), including trams, nearby. Just as well, because there is a severe shortage of parking space. Beckenham's busy high street features many restaurants, and the area has a good selection of well performing schools. Actress Julie Andrews attended the Woodbrook School here, and musician David Bowie performed at the Three Tuns pub in Beckenham High Street.
The Revd Stephen Niechcial, priest missioner and assistant curate, was the celebrant. He was assisted by the Revd Graham Lunn, associate vicar. Two unnamed lay people read the lessons and a server led the intercessions.
What was the name of the service?Sung Mass.
How full was the building?
Not very, but they cunningly have softer chairs in the front four rows, so that if you sat behind those it looked reasonably full. And the associate vicar did make the point at the end of the service that figures have doubled in the last 12 months from tens to twenties. There was a broad age range too, though no children.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
The sidesman greeted me warmly while apologising that they didn't know which hymn book they were using yet, but to go in and take a seat, and one would be brought soon. Almost as soon as I had sat down, a gentleman brought the notice sheet with a smile, and he returned within seconds with the hymn book. About a minute later the earlier-mentioned sidesman came over with another!
Was your pew comfortable?
It was a chair. As above, there were two types of chairs: hard wooden ones typical of their era, which can be very comfortable for a service, and softer ones with padded seats near the front (do you pay more for those?). The wooden ones were fixed by a wooden bar in groups of two to five, I noticed.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The organ played quietly and was conducive to prayer, despite a few quiet conversations nearby.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
We went straight into the first hymn; then the priest introduced himself with a few words of welcome to those who were new.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
We had a locally printed leaflet with a Common Worship order; New English Hymnal; and the red Redemptorist leaflet of readings with the notices printed on the back.
What musical instruments were played?
A rather nice organ, an opus of Mander Organs of St Peter's Square, London, dating from 2012. It was installed thanks to a generous gift from St Michael's organist, Alan Burtonshaw, to replace (quoting from Mander's website) a "very uninspiring old organ." It was beautifully and sensitively played.
Did anything distract you?
I kept being distracted by two beautiful stained glass windows I could see out of the corner of each eye. Having decided to go and take photographs of them afterwards well, I rather ran out of time (see below)!
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Rather old-fashioned Anglo-Catholic; I felt transported back to the 1970s. A mix of modern and old non-matching vestments didn't help, but I assume they use what they have. There were two robed servers. Bells and smells. See below for comments on the psalm and gospel.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
6 – The sermon was well-prepared and covered the points, but delivery was unexceptional and I lost concentration toward the end.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Father Stephen's text was the day's gospel reading, Matthew 16:13-20 (“Who do you think I am?”). He mentioned the TV show Who Do You Think You Are?, relating this to Jesus's question to Peter (which Peter got right!). He then explored how much if at all Peter understood what he was telling Jesus, given that the Messiah was expected to defeat earthly enemies. Later, we'll see that Jesus throws a spanner in the works regarding his future suffering. What would we say if God asked us the same question? We should look for the answer in his heart of love, compassion and mercy.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
I was expecting a said psalm, but suddenly the mellifluous tones of the cantor filled the church from the organ loft. I was transported! And then, the gospel, so beautifully sung by the priest, completed the job.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The one thing that spoilt the service for me was the offertory hymn Cowper and his terrible rhymes. However you say it, "frame" does not rhyme with "lamb," and I can never decide whether it offends my soul more to sing "lame" or "fram," or to destroy the rhyme completely.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
We sat in our seats enjoying the wonderful postlude from the organist and were then promptly almost dragged into the narthex for coffee. The only snag was that I didn't then want to go back into the church to get the photos of the stained glass windows that had so distracted me. I was hoping they'd be on the church's website, but sadly not.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
It was only standard instant, but it was served in the church's own personalised mugs with such gracious enthusiasm. We went out and sat at tables in the church porch, a wonderful witness to passers-by. And there was a choice of biscuits, buy they apologised for there being no cake that week.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – If it were possible I would probably be there.
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 silvery tones of the wonderful soloists for psalm and gospel.