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494: St Giles-in-Reading, Berkshire, England
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St Giles-in-Reading, Berkshire, England
Mystery Worshipper: Sweet Swan of Kennet.
The church: St Giles-in-Reading, Reading, Berkshire, England.
Denomination: Church of England, Diocese of Oxford. But "A Forward in Faith Church".
The building: Vast Victorian church with vernacular flint-faced walls and unusually tall spire; a prominent landmark close to the centre of the town. Parts of it are medieval, but mostly a 19th-century rebuild. The interior space is impressive, with two very wide side aisles and an extremely long chancel. There is a lot of good Victorian stained glass, plus a well-used and looked after Lady Chapel, and several shrines with candles burning in them. The tower is undergoing renovation and the west front is masked by some very tacky corrugated iron which do the building and neighbourhood no service.
The church: The town centre parish is mostly depopulated, but I had a strong feeling that it drew its congregation from a wider catchment area, as a focus for high liturgy. Lots of genuflecting before the Lady Chapel.
The neighbourhood: The west end and tower front on shabby Southampton Street, a busy main route into the centre of the town. Southampton Street has seen better days and they were a long time ago – this part of town has suffered from indiscriminate redevelopment. Some interesting older buildings, perhaps 17th century, survive though. A pleasant alley alongside the south wall and graveyard leads to Church Street and thence to much more elegant London Street. Close to The Oracle, a thriving modern shopping centre, and to the Inner Distribution Road which runs along a flyover nearby. Oscar Wilde, Reading's most famous temporary resident, was accommodated half a mile away.
The cast: Fr. Michael Melrose, the rector. The disembodied voice of a cantor in the organ loft.
What was the name of the service?
Solemn Mass.

How full was the building?
Congregation of about 40, in a building clearly capable of seating 200-300 comfortably. So we were rather lost in the space.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
A nice lady greeted me with a smile as she handed me my hymnbook and service booklets. However, a notice on the door admonished us sternly that we should talk to God before mass and to each other afterwards.

Was your pew comfortable?
Standard wooden pew, comfortable enough though the raised kneelers inhibited leg room. I don't kneel because of arthritis in my knees, but if I wanted to and the church was fuller there weren't many cushions.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Paradoxically, quiet and worshipful yet comfortingly informal. There were several small children about, who were well-behaved but not suppressed. The congregation were clearly very comfortable with their church and its ethos and knew exactly what to do.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Jesu, lover of my soul, let me to thy bosom fly" – first line of the introit hymn. There was no introduction as such. The rector did later apologise for having a sore throat.

What books did the congregation use during the service?
The English Hymnal. In-house booklet, "The Parish Mass during Lent". In-house booklet, "Music for the Mass". A4 service sheet folded lengthwise. Readings were from the Jerusalem Bible.

What musical instruments were played?
Organ. A small chamber organ and a piano stood in the south aisle but were not used.

Did anything distract you?
The usual Reading distraction – Concorde flew low overhead about 20 minutes into the service. The heating wasn't working so it was chilly, and I had a great deal of trouble juggling my various booklets and trying to work out where we were at and what bit of music we were supposed to be singing the various parts of the mass to. I felt that everyone else was used to it and knew what to do.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Very formal, but not intimidating. At times it was hard to believe I wasn't in a Roman Catholic church pre-Vatican II. Intercessions offered for the Pope. The rector wore a biretta. Plenty of incense, and the correct number of bells and swings of the thurible were no doubt observed scrupulously.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
9 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – By his own admission, this was not one of his better days, as he did have a sore throat and had just got through an unusually long Gospel reading. He gestured with his hands a lot and gave the impression that he would be even more animated if only he felt better!

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
God has come to redeem his church, as water springs from the desert. The Gospel reading was the woman of Samaria at the well. (Whenever I visit a new church it's always the woman of Samaria at the well!)

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The singing, from a small but well-trained choir hidden ethereally in the organ loft. This is a church that takes its liturgical music seriously and clearly has a dedicated musical director. I was delighted by the choice of good old-fashioned hymns, too: "Jesu, lover of my soul," "Rock of ages," and a rousing "Cwm Rhondda" to finish with. This is a Kendrick-free zone.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Feeling everybody else but me knew exactly what was going on and what to do. And although I enjoy the incense now and then, incense doesn't like me – it does rotten things to my asthma! I had to strain to hear lots of the service, too, especially when the celebrant was way up the far end.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
The lady in the pew behind me struck up conversation immediately the service was over, about how her daughter was now being plagued by her own children just as she, the daughter, once plagued her. I mooched amongst the leaflets at the back (lots of Forward in Faith ones) and very quickly somebody came and asked where I lived, had I been before, and what did I think of the service. The rector hovered diffidently near the door, but nobody seemed in a hurry to leave.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
No coffee or any other refreshments were on offer. The local chapter of the CSF (Christian Smokers Fellowship) held an animated meeting outside the porch, at which I was made to feel welcome.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 – I'd like to attend a church like this once in a while but not every week – if only because incense affects me so badly. And I'm afraid I can't feel comfortable with Forward in Faith. Without those constraints I think I would enjoy its low-key friendliness.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, it did. The strong sense of controlled power was very uplifting.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The singing, both participatory and non-participatory, especially coming from relatively few singers.
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