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621: Our Lady St Mary, South Creake, Norfolk, England
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Our Lady St Mary, South Creake, Norfolk
Mystery Worshipper: Abed-Nego.
The church: Our Lady St Mary, South Creake, Norfolk, England.
Denomination: Church of England.
The building: A village situated near the north coast of Norfolk, South Creake boasts one of the finest churches in East Anglia. There has been a church on this site for over 1,000 years. Most of what we see today dates from the 12th century, although towards the end of the 13th century, the chancel was constructed in its present form. Then around 1330 the tower and nave were added. Presumably not completely satisfied with the final product, in the early 1400s parishioners decided to rebuild the nave, and celebrated the battle of Agincourt by adding angels – which are very eye-catching and beautiful – on the roof hammer beams. The pulpit was also installed at this time. Simon Jenkins in his book, England's 1000 Best Churches, points out that "South Creake has been completely refurnished in the anglo-catholic rite. A 15th-century rood screen arrived in 1982 from a redundant church in Colchester... every available shelf or alcove is devoted to a statue or shrine... there are burning candles and the smell of incense is everywhere... the cumulative impact of South Creake is of a richly endowed place of worship as it might have been before the Reformation cleared it of colour and clutter."
The church: It is obviously important to the local people that their church affords a warm welcome to its visitors. My wife and I paid a weekday visit ahead of attending the Sunday service, and were delighted by the large number of fresh flowers all over the church. As we were looking around, a local villager came by. She told us that it was the church's policy to check and refresh the floral displays on a daily basis.
The neighbourhood: Although I was there as a tourist, I have a strong sense that real estate comes at a high price in these parts. It is a ravishingly beautiful area of England, mercifully free of tourist traps. The country lanes around South Creake are alarmingly narrow, and drivers share them with tractors and livestock – which include pheasants and ducks who assume their rights-of-way undeterred by the roar of the internal combustion engine.
The cast: The vicar, Fr. Andrew Thomson, was on vacation. His substitute (possibly the curate) was not named.
What was the name of the service?

How full was the building?
Pretty full, though the church probably has seating for no more than 100 or so.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
We were politely greeted and handed our materials.

Was your pew comfortable?
Quite comfortable.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The atmosphere before the service was still, quiet and reverential.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"You will find the words for the Angelus at the back of your books."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
English Hymnal Common Worship "Parish Eucharist".

What musical instruments were played?

Did anything distract you?
The beauty and history of this place are overwhelming. I was distracted by the thought that in this church, the mass had been offered in much the same way for over 1000 years. That thought alone took me to a spiritual place that is not easy to describe. After the dreadful turmoils of the reign of Henry VIII, and after the vicious desecration of religious buildings throughout Britain wrought by Oliver Cromwell, here on a sunny, late summer, Sunday morning in the year of Our Lord 2002, the mass was once again being offered – and on the very same spot where our brothers and sisters in Christ celebrated the Lord's death till He comes again all those centuries ago. I guess that the local Norfolk villagers don't spend much time thinking about such things, but I was distracted by the majesty of history and the sacredness of tradition, and it felt very good.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
I didn't recognise the congregational mass setting – and without music I couldn't join in. But the singing of both the liturgy and the hymns was enthusiastic.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
12 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – The delivery was a little cold and emotionless, but the subject was well thought out.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The text was "Take up your cross and follow me". Whilst we as christians may be looking for excitement, beauty and joy in our lives, we often feel enshrouded by an aura of Victorian gloom and religious prohibitions. The preacher reminded us of the desert fathers, and St Francis in ice-cold water – things he cited as not very "attractive" on the face of it; but nevertheless expressions of taking up the cross. He went on to remind us that we can find joy and glory in that same cross. He waxed lyrically about the role of the arts, citing a woodcut by Eric Gill – "The nuptials of God". In it, the artist had depicted mother church with Christ as her bridegroom. Here we saw not the misery of the cross but the ecstasy, with Christ's open arms as the embrace of everything that we are.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
With those brightly coloured 15th century angels smiling down on me from the roof, I felt I was in heaven already. Is there a more beautiful parish church on the face of the earth?

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
There was a moment in the communion hymn – "Pange lingua" – when I had the sense that I was singing different words than everyone else. I double-checked. I was on the right page in the book. And then suddenly and abruptly the hymn ended after only two of the four verses had been sung. In retrospect I have to assume that we had jumped to the last verse when I wasn't paying attention.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
A lovely lady called Barbara introduced herself, and we talked about the joys and travails of life in a small village; of taking care of the precious heritage that is St Mary's, South Creake; and of the pleasures of life in North Norfolk. She hoped we would come back again one day. We certainly hope too.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
No coffee hour, but then I didn't notice a church hall in the immediate vicinity.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
10 – Oh that I could retire to South Creake and attend mass every day on that heavenly spot.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Overwhelmingly so.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The sense of peace that comes from knowing that the real presence of our Lord is still alive in that sacred place, even though I am now a continent away.
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