Mystery Worshipper: Bunbury (O'Remus)
Church: St Thomas More
Location: Marlborough, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 18 May 2014, 11:00am
If you admire the optimism of the 50s, then this might be a building for you: largely red brick construction, with elongated roof structure and mannered entranceway into a narthex, with a lozenged window above the entrance door. The west end is a rather ugly glass and concrete affair. The inside is somewhat better, with a small gallery above the carpeted narthex and a clean, uncluttered sanctuary with rather plain features. A beautiful crucifix hung on the wall above the tabernacle. There is an expanse of stained glass on the south side. All rather airy and open. It looks as if it was re-ordered at some point, and the lighting and sound system seem newly installed. There is a simple (in every sense) statue of Our Lady to the south side and a smaller statue of St Thomas More on a plinth in the gallery wall.
Official records of 1584 mention two papists living in Wiltshire, but no other record of Catholicism in the area exists until 1740, when Benedictine chaplains celebrated mass in a house owned by the Hyde family. In 1937 the Missionaries of St Francis de Sales (Fransalians) opened a chapel, capitalising on the renaissance the Catholic Church experienced during the 1930s and 1940s. The present building was opened in 1959 but not consecrated until 1985. There is one mass celebrated each Sunday, with the sacrament of reconciliation offered Saturday mornings and on an on-call basis in French.
Marlborough, in Wiltshire, boasts a rather glorious high street, reputedly the second widest in England after that in Stockton-on-Tees. It's a lovely market town and still holds regular market days. It is home to Marlborough College, whose alumni range from Anthony Blunt, the art historian and spy, by way of Siegfried Sassoon (himself a convert to Catholicism), to HRH The Duchess of Cambridge (among many other illuminati!). The church stands on George Lane near to the police station.
My pew leaflet told me that the priest celebrating mass was the Revd Gary Brassington, the parish priest being away for some unspecified reason. No introduction was made to the other cleric, who turned out to be a deacon, though the vestment he was wearing looked more like a chasuble than a dalmatic. His stole gave him away, though, as did his other roles in the liturgy when the priest allowed them to him (see below). The deacon did, however, preach.
What was the name of the service?Parish Mass with Childrens Liturgy
How full was the building?
At 10.50 when I arrived there were about 20 people present; at 11.00 when the service was due to start, the church had swelled to about 60 souls. When mass started at 11.08 (the priest didnt arrive until 11.02, presumably from his own parish in Swindon) there were about 90 people seated, but at communion there seemed many more. All in all, the church was, I guess, over half full.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
The lady who handed me the literature to guide me through mass smiled at me but there was no personal greeting. But someone else frowned and tutted at me for having parked my car (legitimately) at the front of the church a little way off. Not sure what that was about.
Was your pew comfortable?
The pew was perfectly comfortable in that 1950s lounge type of way. Open backed, long pews arranged in two banks, with circulation space at the sides and down the central aisle. I quite liked that there was a ledge at the back of the seat of the pew in front for your literature, though I kept mine neatly to my side.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Pre-service atmosphere was more like the popular coffee chain Caffè Nero than a house of contemplation. The musical run-through of the psalm had just finished and there was one parishioner busy organising people every parish seems to have one and usually needs one. It was very distracting with her bobbing up and down, telling others what they should and shouldnt be doing. It was difficult to ignore. But a hush did descend at about 11.00 while we waited for mass to commence.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
Mass began with the sacristy bell ringing, telling us to stand (although the organising lady felt the need to say, "Please stand"). She also announced the first hymn although the number was clearly displayed on the board. The first liturgical words spoken were: "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit; good morning, people!" as if wishing the Trinity a good morning.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
A weekly pew leaflet, a music sheet with the "Marlborough Mass," a hymn book (Liturgical Hymns Old & New), and a laminated Order of Mass: New English Translation.
What musical instruments were played?
The organ was played in an accomplished way, if somewhat quickly. There were singers who largely sang in tune as they led the worship and it is worth mentioning the two rather fine female singers, one of whom was in the gallery and the other of whom was serving. But the mass setting was really quite unsingable, even for a musician who is used to sight-reading. The vocal range was excessive and the melodic lines stressed all the wrong syllables. At communion, "O bread of heaven beneath this veil" came as a welcome contrast, especially since the offertory had been the hideous 1966 ditty "Take our bread." The recessional was "Thine be the glory" (but by then quite a number of the congregation had left quite a few didnt even wait for the blessing).
Did anything distract you?
I was strangely distracted by the absence of families, specifically children! Usually it is their presence and their playing throughout the liturgy that can be the distraction, but there were, I observed, only three children sitting a few rows ahead of me (one sporting a very colourful yellow flower in her hair), and one or two others who came up for communion. Unless I missed it on the last pirouette, there seemed to be no childrens liturgy as had been advertised.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
A sung parish mass with incense (though not much smoke). The priest seemed unused to having a deacon assist him, as he sometimes forgot to allow the deacon to do his thing (there are specific bits reserved for the deacon if one if present). But ultimately the service felt like "eyes down for the next bingo mass." I experienced a real lack of engagement by the priest; perhaps it was because he was visiting but he could have helped himself by, for example, introducing himself or the deacon, or coming to greet the people at the end of mass. But the liturgy was no worse than one has come to expect, and, in fact, given the two competent singers mentioned above, was perhaps better than a lot of the fare served to Catholics.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
4 – I am sure the young deacon will improve his delivery over time, but it seemed today to be without real feeling. He looked rather embarrassed to be standing there. I actually felt for him because the priest seemed a little bossy and impatient.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The deacon spoke on the theme of service and prayer, although he seemed rather silent on prayer. I am afraid it felt as if it had been put together from gobbits gleaned after a Google search. I came away really unsure as to what he was suggesting I should do by way of service or prayer to sustain my spiritual life.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
There was little in all honesty to make one think of heaven, save for attendance at mass and receiving the Sacrament, the Bread of Heaven; St Maximilian Kolbe had it that if angels could be jealous of men, they would be for one reason: holy communion.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
As to the other place: the intercessions felt like a monotonous litany of those things that "we must pray for" because that is what was expected: Syria, hostages in Kenya, etc., but they were trotted out in a way that reminded me of a gambling addict popping prayers into a celestial gaming machine, pulling the lever in the vain hope that some miracles might come pouring out. And for reasons that were not clear to me, a chap came to speak to the congregation at the end of mass about money and the fact that the Christmas bazaar was off. They've just discovered that at Eastertide?
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
There was a large scramble for the door. I stayed to pray for a bit and then loitered by the doors, but no one spoke to me. In fact, I sensed that people were staring at me, which made me so uncomfortable that I felt I too had no option but to flee. Someone did manage to thrust an envelope into my hands by which I could help remedy the Christmas bazaar shortfall, though. The parish must be desperate for dosh.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
A small clique of about ten people had gathered in the narthex, gossiping and taking tea and coffee in china cups. I wasn't sure if this was supposed to pass for after-service fellowship none had been announced, and none was offered me. I did manage to speak to the organist, who seemed more ready for a stiff drink than for tea.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 – I feel I could worship here again, but if what I experienced today is the regular diet served to the people, there could be potential cases of spiritual scurvy. It would be hard to assess, though, without encountering the regular pastors ministry as shepherd of the people.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Of course one is always glad to be a Christian, especially during the holy season of Easter.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The very striking and modern crucifix on the wall above the tabernacle. It was really very beautiful and was the focus of my attention and meditation through much of the service.