As you pass St Nick's (as it seems to be known locally) on the street, there seems little of any particular note, with the usual inner-city protection on stained glass windows and high fencing around the perimeter. But once you have found your way inside the building (strangely, not the easiest of tasks), you enter through a door in the former liturgical east end into a lobby which would once have been the location of the high altar, and realise that a renovation scheme (of 2009) has turned the focus 180 degrees. Your eye is taken down the length of the 1850 nave toward the altar and an attractive and unusual tabernacle, and once you have passed the modern immersion baptismal font (unusual in a Catholic Church in the UK), there is a prominent altar with the seating arranged either side facing inward.
The parish describes itself as a communion of communities in mission with over 60 nationalities gathering regularly for worship. It has a very strong sense of identity, seeking the face of Christ among the marginalised through God's preferential option for the poor (very much in the charisma of the patron of the parish). The parish has an active programme of work with the homeless, refugees, those caught in addiction, and sex workers, as well as ex-prisoners; they also offer Christian hospitality to those of other traditions - the Ethiopian Orthodox Church holds regular worship at St Nick's and have a commitment to unity.
St Nick's lies within the community of Easton to the east of Bristol city centre, centred on Lawrence Hill. It is a multi-deprived neighbourhood, and very ethnically diverse - there's a synagogue, three mosques, a Sikh temple, and numerous churches of various denominations and charismatic traditions. Wikipedia tells me that the name of the English graffiti artist, political activist, film director, and painter Banksy is synonymous with Easton, though one of Bansky's artistic creations had a tin of paint thrown over it when the building on which it was painted was sold as a piece of Banksy graffiti with a house thrown in for free.
Celebrant and preacher was the Revd Richard Mckay, parish priest. He was assisted by two deacons, who I assume (from the pew leaflet) to have been the Revd Mr Jack Brannigan and the Revd Mr Joseph Phillip.
What was the name of the service?Parish Mass.
How full was the building?
About 10 minutes before the service was due to start, there were perhaps 25 people seated; by the time mass should have started, that number had perhaps doubled; but when mass did start at about 10.43 there were perhaps about 100 people present. By the time of communion (people continued to drift in until the end of the homily). There were probably 140 people.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
I had to ask someone in the car park whether I was headed in the right direction for mass; a beaming smile was my reward and "Oh yes, dear!" came the reply. At the porch, a young girl handed me a pew leaflet and I settled in, feeling very welcome. A couple of others smiled and said "Hello and welcome" as they took to their seats. Someone else then asked where in Bristol I came from and I said I was just visiting. And before mass actually started, a genial chap who had been fiddling with the lectionary (who I assumed was the sacristan as he was not in a clerical collar) came and said hello and introduced himself as the parish priest. If only all churches were so friendly! Such joy clearly evident all around!
Was your pew comfortable?
Not a pew in sight, but rather luxurious and well-appointed padded chairs. Very comfortable, although it was tricky to be able to kneel comfortably, as the row in front of me had four seats and my row had five so I fell literally between two stools for the kneeler.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
There was a real sense of excitement palpable, even with the few people present when I first arrived. This grew as the congregation, multi-racial and inter-generational, drifted in dressed in their Sunday finery. But a reverential hush did descend at the time mass was due to start.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Oh the word of my Lord, deep within my being," from the hymn of the same name (based on Jeremiah 1).
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Laudate hymn book and Praise from the Nations (a hymn book produced for the parish) with hymn words in many tongues, from French to Shona (there was a large Zimbabwean contingent at mass). Words of the mass were available on a printed card.
What musical instruments were played?
Organ, guitar, African drum, and what I believe was a nino cabasa (a wood and metal rattle, similar to a beaded gourd).
Did anything distract you?
Well, I just didn't like the tiles that had been selected for the flooring! And I was a little taken aback (I don't know why) when the whole church held hands at the Lord's Prayer, but the charming young girl who firmly took my hand and gave me a look as if to say, "Don't be such a stuffed shirt!" deflated any last remnant of ego or stand-offishness.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
This was charismatic Catholic worship, albeit with eight young servers and an enthusiastic thurifer with clouds of incense. It had so much joy that you couldnt help sway in rhythm to the music. The Gloria was sung with such love and enthusiasm that I almost got carried away and started to clap myself.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – I would have given a 9, but I feel I need to deduct something for the length (10 minutes less would still have conveyed the same strong message). But the almost 30 minutes of gentle exposition of the gospel was delivered without notes, and with great conviction and charisma.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Be attentive to the current political scene, but continue as well to identify with the marginalised, and poor, the excluded and despised for if we do, there we will surely see the face of Christ. And that must be our calling: to be witnesses to the Good News given to us freely.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Just the sheer enthusiasm of people gathered to worship God. I was overwhelmed more than once during the service. I felt surrounded by God's love so tangibly present and expressed in this parish's worship.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Well, I wasn't convinced by some of the decor (including those tiles!), but as the homily reminded me, our Christian worship and expression is much more than a building.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
There wasn't time really to hang about. I had a lunch appointment and had by the end of mass been at the church for over two hours, but there was lots of chatter and hugs from almost everyone present. I have no doubt I would have been swept up by someone in the congregation had I looked lost.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There didn't seem to be any although a cake sale was announced.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 – I prefer to have some time of quiet, even during mass (there was a lot of singing, even at the elevation of the Host), but I would certainly not hesitate to come back. And were I to make this my regular place of worship, it would have a great deal to teach me and illumine me on my journey to God.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Without a doubt! It was a joyous and unashamedly fun celebration, with Christ absolutely at the centre of their community.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
Am I allowed two?! The enthusiasm of the congregation and the really rather beautiful tabernacle in the shape of an African hut.