Mystery Worshipper: Beggarman
Church: St Thomas the Martyr
Location: Becket Street, Oxford, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 15 August 2010, 10:00am
Typical English 12th century. The oldest part is the chancel, with three Norman windows. The east window is 14th century, and the nave and tower date from the mid 15th century. The north aisle is modern by comparison, having been added in the mid 19th century. The interior is full of artifacts, each with its own interesting story.
St Thomas Church has been closely associated with the Oxford Movement from its earliest beginnings. These days the parish maintains particular links with nearby St Barnabas and with Pusey House, long a center of Anglo-Catholic worship, scholarship and teaching. They apparently also host a Syrian Orthodox congregation.
As St Thomas Becket was martyred in 1170, this must once have been the trendiest church on the block, albeit overshadowed by nearby Osney Abbey. Nowadays one would hardly know the church is there, as it is tucked away on a side street near the city's post-office depot, and has something of the feel of a medieval relic, set between bed-sit/bed-and-breakfast land on one side, and modern apartment blocks on the other. Those who have discovered it, however, know that when the sun comes out, the grounds are a sylvan idyll in a busy city.
The Revd John Hunwicke was the celebrant and preacher, and the Revd Michael Wright served as deacon. There were also a thurifer and two acolytes.
What was the name of the service?Sunday Mass.
How full was the building?
It wasn't! The 20 or so of us assembled (all-age and quite diverse in background) were, I was assured, a good congregation.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Very much so. It wasn't just that there was a lady with a pile of service books and a warm smile at the door. A particular point was made of wishing people good morning and pointing out the more comfortable seats at the front, where the nuns used to sit.
Was your pew comfortable?
No. If you don't have the courage of your convictions and go and sit at the front, you get a seat which, after a few minutes, feels like an instrument of medieval torture. The scavenger's daughter would seem like an overstuffed lounge chair by comparison.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quiet and devotional, with a strong smell of incense in the air. I felt I had wandered into an ecclesiastical time warp and emerged at a medieval high mass, where the only light was from dozens of candles.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
Inaudible I wasn't even sure which language they were in, because part of me was half expecting medieval monks to turn up chanting Latin. The first intelligible sentence was "O Lord, open thou our lips", which came as a bit of a surprise, not only because it was in English, but because I was expecting a eucharist, not morning prayer.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
A home-produced booklet of their order of service (read Roman Catholic novus ordo translated into Prayer Book English), which I found impossible to follow; the Catholic English Hymnal (words only); and a service sheet for Assumption Day that explained a bit about the "extras" laid on for the feast of Our Lady. As most of the service, including congregational responses, was sung, sheet music would have been helpful, but I didn't know to ask for that when I arrived.
What musical instruments were played?
An unusually fine organ for such a small parish church. Or perhaps it just sounded good in the hands of someone who really knows his way round the console and writes his own arrangements. Two manual, 16 rank, pneumatic action; built by C Martin, Oxford, 1893; and just about to be taken apart for the thorough cleaning it needs after a century's regular exposure to thick clouds of incense.
Did anything distract you?
The organist's choice of melody for one of the hymns. It seemed vaguely familiar, but somehow out of place. Moreover, more than one member of the congregation was having difficulty keeping a straight face. Then I realised: the tune was the Eton Boating Song. You try singing a hymn to the Queen of Heaven, without giggling, if what's going through your mind is "Jolly boating weather" and "Swing swing together, with your bodies between your knees."
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Smells and bells, but no liturgical fuss or self-important pompousness. The only slightly odd thing (besides the choice of music!) was the eucharistic prayer being interrupted for a post-consecration procession to the statue of Our Lady of Osney, in the chancel, to dedicate some sweet-smelling flowers that had been given by a couple from the congregation to celebrate their wedding anniversary.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
5 – Schoolmasterly. Not surprising, given his background at Lancing College, one of England's leading independent schools.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Father Hunwicke summarised St John Damascene's account of the death of the Blessed Virgin Mary and how, upon finding her tomb empty three days later, it was assumed that her body had been "translated" to heaven ahead of the Resurrection. (All that was left, apparently, were the grave clothes and a smell of perfume; hence the tradition of doing things with rose petals on her feast day.) When Pope Pius XII pronounced the dogma of the Assumption in 1950, he stripped much of the legend out of the story, and so "took all the fun" out of traditional celebrations of the day. The importance of the doctrine of the Assumption is that it shows Our Lady's power as an intercessor. (Had he stopped here, I would have rated him a 9. But he suddenly turned from Our Lady and Pope Pius to a naval battle – see below!)
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The Bible readings: the clear delivery of a couple of passages from the New Testament, the quiet dignity of the lady calmly standing at the lectern while a cantor intoned a chant between readings, and the gospel being sung. A multi-sensory approach to worship, while keeping the clarity of the Word.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Father Hunwicke went on to describe the Battle of Lepanto as an example of how the intercession of the Blessed Mother made it possible for good Catholic Christians to slaughter very large numbers of those treacherous Muslim Turks. How seriously/literally were we supposed to take it when he solemnly informed us that we have all those confraternities of peasants saying their rosaries to thank for Europe being "free for ham sandwiches and the holy sacrifice of the mass?"
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Many people lit candles before Our Lady of Osney; rather fewer walked to the house next door for coffee. But at least three different people engaged me in conversation and made sure that I felt welcome to join the after-service gathering and that I knew where it was.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Cheerful instant coffee in mugs and a massive bowl of plums freshly picked by a member of the congregation. There was much to enjoy in the company of people who clearly care for each other, are ready to welcome newbies, and have a self-deprecating sense of humour. The social interaction seemed an integral part of the worship – every bit as important as (almost an extension of) the liturgical business in the church building. Those who had to leave early sure missed out.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 – Really, the answer to this would have to be either 1 or 10, depending entirely on where one personally stood on traditionalist issues. There's a lot more to traditionalism than an all-male clergy. Some people commute long distances to be at St Thomas because it gives good value in terms of what it sets out to do.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
No. I couldn't entirely get over the feeling that I'd been transported not so much back in time as to a make-believe era that never really existed. I certainly couldn't get over the embarrassment of hearing the faith presented (even if it was tongue-in-cheek) in terms of armed conflict with Islam, intellectual conflict with empirical science, and generally holding out against almost anything that's modern.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
A Marian hymn sung to the tune of the Eton Boating Song.