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468: St Mary the Virgin, Oxford, England
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St Mary the Virgin, Oxford, England
Mystery Worshipper: Joan the Dwarf.
The church: The University Church of St Mary the Virgin, Oxford, England.
Denomination: Church of England.
The building: Built in the same (medieval) style as nearby colleges, with a prominent spire, whose clock is well-known to undergraduates late for lectures. Honey-coloured Oxford stone (and not too dirty, thank goodness), with the famous barley-sugar columns fronting the entrance onto the High. There is a cafe and shop in the back of the building.
The church: The University Sermon does not give rise to any sense of community: the people there were not a worshipping community, they were people like me who had come along for this because they were interested in it. It does not pretend to take the place of a regular church – indeed, St Mary's regular Sunday service occurs immediately afterwards, attended by a very different group of people. The University Sermon is traditional (in a non-pejorative sense)
The neighbourhood: Oxford University, home of lost causes and mad academics. Just a little place we like to call home.
The cast: The preacher was Dr Nicholas Richardson, tutor in classics and Fellow of Merton. The cantor was Rev. R.C. Smail, Chaplain of Brasenose. There were also assorted university grandees – Proctors representative and other such.
What was the name of the service?
The University Sermon. Latin litany and sermon.

How full was the building?
About 30 people. Pretty good for a service in a defunct language.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
There was no one on the door; we just found our seats and they had the books in them. This is not normal St Mary's practice, however. This was a university service rather than a St Mary's service.

Was your pew comfortable?
Not the best ever. I was OK as the service was very short, but a friend was very definite that they were awfully uncomfortable. Maybe I was too busy taking notes.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quiet and fairly donnish. It was most definitely not a social gathering. Just before the service began there was a rather ragged procession of the university worthies in their regalia, with the three leading lights carrying hefty sceptre-like objects. It all added to the air of slightly shabby solemnity.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Pater de celis Deus" (the start of the litany).

What books did the congregation use during the service?
Litany book and a large leaflet with the sermon printed (in Latin, and then a small précis in English).

What musical instruments were played?
Organ, ably assisted by the choir of the University Church.

Did anything distract you?
The cantor knelt in front of the nave altar for the litany and waggled his head ferociously when singing. I divided my attention between attempting to follow the litany book and watching the back of his head in fascination.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
So very, very Oxford. Nothing like this would be found anywhere else in the world. Most members of the congregation were gowned, with classicists being very much in evidence – although most people were students, with only a few fossilized dons here and there. The litany (Latin) was sung, then the preacher was escorted to the pulpit with due, if slightly scuffling, ceremony. He led some prayers, then sermonized, all in Latin. A mumbled chorus of "Pater noster" and he descended, then some more music and the dignitaries filed out – all done in about half an hour.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
9 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
4 – It's difficult to comment on how good the preacher is when you don't speak the language. At first I thought his delivery was very flat: I jotted down, "sounds like he's reading out a shopping list," before the person next to me informed me that he was reading the list of benefactors and the sermon hadn't actually started yet. He became slightly more animated during the sermon, but only just. He read from a sheet and only once looked up (when saying the obviously revered name of Thomas Aquinas). He looked the part wonderfully: tall, lean, grey-haired and begowned, and had a fascinating habit of oscillating back and forth on this heels with a period of about five seconds.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
According to the translated précis, it was about how Christ in his baptism and conflict with evil enters into our suffering. Suffering as evil in itself, but a basis for salvation. His argument didn't seem terribly impressive, and he had a rather Roman fixation: John Paul II was quoted at length, and the sermon started with "Hodie celebrat Ecclesia Romana Iesu Christi baptismum" – um, the Anglican Church was celebrating it as well...

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
At the end of the service the university dignitaries processed out from the back of the church to the sound of the organ. Watching them pass in front of the chancel I had a sudden vision of something I had forgotten: acadaemia wedded to spirituality, its efforts as worship in discovering the creation and hence the Creator. John Donne's words came to me very forcibly: "The University is a Paradise, Rivers of Knowledge are there."

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Unfortunately, while the end procession was still doing its bit, two people entered the top of the chancel from behind the scenes with handfuls of tat to set up for the next service! Also Hellish was the point at which the – otherwise fantastic – sopranos broke down rather horribly.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
This was difficult as I was with friends, but when I did manage to stand alone, no one spoke to me. This was unsurprising as it is not a community.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Purely platonic, with no physical instantiation. Instead we adjourned to a nearby MCR for our own coffee.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
4 – As noted above, it really isn't a community. University Sermons are generally good fun, though, and I've been to a few.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Definitely, and specifically glad to be an academic Christian. It was good to rediscover a vision that I had lost in the darkness.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The prayers offered up in the litany for "imbecilles sustenare" – sustain the imbeciles!
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