St Philip's Priory, Chelmsford

St Philip’s Priory, Chelmsford, England


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Philip’s Priory
Location: Chelmsford, England
Date of visit: Friday, 2 December 2022, 7:30am

The building

Originally this was a private house, purchased in 1927 for the Servite Sisters, who added an adjoining school, which is now not connected with the priory. In the 1990s the house, which is on New London Road, became too big for the dwindling community, so it was bought by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brentwood for use as a presbytery for the priests of the nearby church of Our Lady Immaculate. In 2008, a branch of the Premonstratensian Order (also known as the Norbertines) took up residence, and were given the care of the church and its neighbouring parish. But in 2022 they moved to Peckham in South London. The priory is now once again the presbytery of the secular clergy serving the church and the parish, as well as an adjoining parish and various chaplaincies. The present clergy have turned one of the front rooms of the house into a chapel, where we met.

The church

The time of this 7.30am service will tell you that this Mass is for those going to work, chronic insomniacs, and those who like a nice chat over breakfast.

The neighborhood

Chelmsford is the county town of Essex, and claims to be the birthplace of radio, as it was where Marconi set up the world's first wireless factory.

The cast

The principal celebrant was a priest. There was also a laywoman reader.

What was the name of the service?

Low Mass for the first Friday in Advent.

How full was the building?

There were 11 of us, including the priest, in a medium-sized front room.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

As we arrived, a number of us stopped to look at the Christmas crib in the window, so there were the sort of mutual greetings you might expect, and the priest came to the door to welcome us.

Was your pew comfortable?

No pews – we sat on chairs, most of which were padded and very comfortable, while others were more utilitarian. They were arranged in a triangle with the altar at the base and the door at the apex, so there was no gazing at serried rows of backs, thank God!

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Quiet and prayerful, but with greetings being offered to people as they arrived.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

‘Behold the Lord will come, descending with splendour to visit his people with peace, and he will bestow on them eternal life.’ This was the entrance antiphon.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

There were Missals for the priest and reader, but none needed for the congregation, as it was all out loud.

What musical instruments were played?

None. This was a very Low Mass, and we didn't sing.

Did anything distract you?

I was intrigued by the scene hanging on the wall behind the altar, and wondered why it was divided as a triptych. Apart from that, there was only my wandering mind, fretting about what I had to do later that morning.

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

Low Mass says it all, I think. It was neither one extreme nor the other.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

Two and a half minutes. Since it was delivered early in the morning during a service that was intended (probably) for people going to work, it felt just about right.

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

9 — Given in a softly spoken Irish voice, but the size of the room made it easy to listen to.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The priest told the story of a mother who saved her only son from a serious house fire, at the risk of her own life, and suffering severe scarring as a result. Years later the son, now rich and famous, was holding a party for his friends but refused to let his mother attend in case her scars embarrassed the company. The priest asked us to consider how willing are we to acknowledge Christ, who suffered and died for us, in front of other people. This was very apt because, the day before, there had been a report in the press that less than half the population of the country now identify as Christians.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

I'm always much more comfortable and prayerful in small groups and with the furniture arranged as described.

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

The general instructions to the Roman Missal says that the Gospel Acclamation may be omitted but, if used, should always be sung. Only the most skillful cantor can manage it all, but I think we could all have coped with the Alleluias. This is only a little niggle on behalf of The Pedants' Revolt. If the Other Place is only as bad as this, it's not much of a deterrent, is it?

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

Before he gave the blessing, the priest invited us to stay for refreshments after Mass. I followed the people in front of me when the service ended.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There was a choice of tea or coffee, with toast and butter (or spread), plus marmalade or jam.

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

10 — Barring health problems, I shall endeavour to make this a regular slot in my weekly routine.

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

Yes, I felt that I was in the company of the saints.

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

The story in the sermon.

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