St Thomas More, London


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Thomas More
Location: London
Date of visit: Sunday, 20 February 2022, 6:00pm

The building

Photo: © Alvaro Garcia (Google Maps) A semi-circular building with red face brick walls and concrete pillars, dark wood pews and flooring. The lay-out and sloping floor gives everyone a sense of reasonable closeness to the sanctuary. It's a typical 1960s building but its dignity means that it is more successful than most churches from that bleak era for ecclesiastical architecture.

The church

The parish is in the care of the Prelature of Opus Dei, which also has a student residence and an education centre in the immediate vicinity. Opus Dei was founded in Spain in 1928 and given final approval in 1950 by Pope Pius XII and made a personal prelature in 1982 by Pope John Paul II. Similar to a diocese but comprised of clergy and laity worldwide, it has described itself as ‘a teaching entity whose main activity is to train Catholics to assume personal responsibility in sanctifying the secular world from within.’ Opus Dei received attention, not particularly accurate or deserved, as a result of Dan Brown's novel The Da Vinci Code. St Thomas More Parish supports several groups that (quoting from their website) ‘meet for prayer, social action, Sacramental preparation, youth work and the support of others in the life the Church.’ Mass is celebrated daily (although their website sternly warns that ‘the toilets are not open’) and there are three masses each Sunday. Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament takes place on Fridays.

The neighborhood

The Sigmund Freud Museum is in the great man's final home, almost immediately opposite the church. A few yards away is the Tavistock Institute, London's best-known centre for psychoanalytic training, which has a statue of Freud outside. The streets around are very well-heeled but traffic hurtles down nearby Finchley Road where flats house a more mixed population.

The cast

An unnamed priest presided and preached.

What was the name of the service?

Sunday evening Mass, Seventh Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year C).

How full was the building?

There were about 60 people, which, given the appalling weather (see below) and the tail end of Covid, I thought was pretty good. The congregation were mostly young adults, the majority on their own, few couples.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Yes. There was a person stationed to meet and greet with a smile and a welcome.

Was your pew comfortable?

Hardwood pew but quite tolerable.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Quiet and prayerful. Six candles guttered on the altar where, I was glad to see, the chalice and paten were already present, neatly covered in green veil and burse.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

The first words were the opening antiphon, 'O Lord, I trust in your merciful love ...' followed by invitation to penitence and the Confiteor.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

None. Readings were from the Jerusalem Bible.

What musical instruments were played?


Did anything distract you?

Rather oddly, the heating switched off shortly before the service began, and I had to keep my hands in my pockets to keep warm. I hoped nobody thought me devious or lackadaisical.

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

This was a quiet, reflective said mass. I did wonder whether a folk mass might be a good idea, given the makeup of the congregation.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

7 minutes.

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

8 — A low-key delivery, without any dramatization. The focus was clearly to be on the message, not the messenger. I would have awarded the preacher a higher score if he had tackled some of the harder sayings in the gospel passage, e.g. turn the other cheek, do not ask for your property back from the robber.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

In all our relationships, sooner or later irritation creeps in when people become familiar to us. Forgiveness has to be central to our way of life, as we live what we are, made in the image of God. In situations of animosity we have to try to break the cycle through our generous forgiveness, like David not taking the chance to kill Saul (as in our first reading from 1 Samuel 26), and in obedience to Christ's injunction that we should not condemn or judge, but pardon (the gospel was Luke 6: 26-38). Of all the animals, human beings alone have the capacity to forgive.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The shared silence and concentration from the entire congregation at the words of institution and the elevation of host and chalice. It was a moment of transcendence, helped by the priest speaking the words slowly and carefully (OK, so I'm an old-fashioned Catholic. But still ...)

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

The weather was, well, diabolical. Hard on the heels of Storm Eunice, Storm Franklin arrived at about the same time as mass. The wind plucked at the church roof and howled around, shaking the windows from time to time, accompanied by a drumbeat of heavy, insistent rain.

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

We scuttled into the night. No one hung around, except for some forlorn students without raincoats or umbrellas glumly wondering how to get home without being drenched.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There was none, but Finchley Road has a wonderful range of eateries: patisseries, Chinese, cordon bleu etc.

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

7 — I could do with a bit of music – and with a little heat!

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 ghastly weather. And whether it is true that humans alone in the animal kingdom have the capacity for forgiveness. I'm chewing this over.

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