|369: St Mary the Virgin, Oxford, England|
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Mystery Worshipper: Whistling Clanger.
The church: The University Church of St Mary the Virgin, Oxford, England.
Denomination: Church of England.
The building: Medieval stone covered with carvings wonderful twisty columns at the entrance. They founded Oxford University here at some point in the Middle Ages. Later the place was a kneeling ground for Wesley and Newman, so I suppose you could say it has a history of new beginnings.
The church: It is the University church, so it has students in term-time and attracts lots of tourists in vacations. Indeed, it is said to be the most visited parish church in England.
The neighbourhood: The University of Oxford. Next-door neighbours include the Bodleian Library and assorted colleges. If you're looking for a good view of the medieval part of Oxford, the church tower is the place to go.
The cast: Lots of brains on display here! The Vicar, Rev. Canon Brian Mountford, celebrated, and newly-priested Rev. Dr Harriet Harris assisted. The Dean of Divinity at New College preached.
What was the name of the service?
How full was the building?
The church was reassuringly full, but not squashed. The congregation was made up of tourists, regulars, stray students, even a monk.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
As I came in, I got a "Good morning" in a warm and friendly accent from the lady distributing books.
Was your pew comfortable?
The kneelers were too low for the shorter Mystery Worshipper to kneel comfortably. On the other hand, they provided a soft landing when I slid off the over-polished wood of my pew!
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
There was an impressive calm in the nave, reminiscent of the quiet of the nearby Bodleian Library, but rather too much bustle and noise in the sanctuary.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"May I welcome you all to St Mary's this morning?"
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Parish-produced service sheet was well laid-out and attractive (though with non-standard offertory prayers shock horror!). Hymns were from the New English Hymnal.
What musical instruments were played?
Magnificent organ playing.
Did anything distract you?
The building drew my attention from the service on several occasions but this was no bad thing, as it spoke more eloquently of the divine than most of the service itself. The decidedly idiosyncratic hand signals from the clergy at the reading of the Gospel and the consecration were just irritating. And what was wrong with the celebrant? Boy, did he look bored!
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The church would probably describe itself as moderate Catholic, but liberal with a moderate liturgical interest might be nearer the mark.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Avarice is rooted in fear. Consequently, we need to root out the fear. Do not find your identity in earthly things. One sentence had a sort of Zen-quality: "In order to have something, you must let it go."
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The beauty and majesty of the building must surely have parallels in heaven! Also, I hope they play the organ this well on the other side.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The poor impression the presiding priest's apparent boredom made cannot be reproduced in this medium. I have never seen anyone genuflect with less perceptible interest.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I was accosted by several friends, but at other lost moments the rest of the congregation ignored me.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Tea, coffee and juice served in real cups and glasses (rather than the disposable imitations). More biscuits appeared when the first supply finished. I was really impressed but I don't get out often.
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 The building itself would attract me on a regular basis, although I might bring my own seat next time. Also the place needs incense. It adds mystification to mystery. And smells nice.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. It was good to be part of a congregation so tangibly focused on God.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The wonderful organ playing and the beauty of the medieval building.