|628: St Mary and All Saints, Little Walsingham, Norfolk, England|
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Mystery Worshipper: Lavender Waters.
The church: St Mary and All Saints, Little Walsingham, Norfolk, England.
Denomination: Church of England.
The building: The exterior of the church, flint with limestone window and door-frames, is much as it would have been several centuries ago. However, it caught fire in 1961, and all bar the tower, south porch and font was destroyed. The rest was restored with great success. It is full of light, having many plain glass windows, white walls and discrete gold, red and green paintings. It contains artefacts from several periods of its development, the most splendid being the huge seven sacrament font, which looks somewhat abused as the heads on most of the figures have been knocked off. The font is at the top of three steep steps, the topmost of which is cruciform.. Quite how a rheumaticky cleric burdened with an overgrown baby would negotiate himself (and it would be a him, here) to the top is a mystery. There are various modern statues around, all adorned with votive lights and small flower arrangements. A particularly utilitarian sink unit at the north-west corner of the nave hems in a lovely 17th century monument. The couple lying on their slabs (Sir Henry and Lady Jane Sidney) behind it did not look the "fellowship area" sort.
The neighbourhood: Little Walsingham (much bigger of course than the neighbouring Great Walsingham) still looks medieval, with a narrow north-south High Street and a market place. There are two pubs and some interesting watercourses and drains about. Most of the shops sell tat and devotional whim-whams, including glow-in-the-dark statues of Our Lady, and plastic holy water bottles fashioned after Herself, fillable on unscrewing her blue plastic crown, which doubles as a stopper. Person-spotting is always rewarding here: there are generally several species of nun, ponderous bicycling clergy in berets, pallid young men and very pious ladies discussing what Father gets up to in the sacristy over tea-and-cakes in the numerous teashops. It's well worth carrying a notebook and pencil to jot down the more memorable snippets.
The cast: Vicar: Fr. Norman Aidan Banks; Celebrant and Preacher: Fr. John Davies.
What was the name of the service?
How full was the building?
The church was almost full when I arrived with 10 minutes to spare, so I ended up with a restricted view, behind a pillar. There were probably 150-200 people there, most of whom were pilgrims rather than villagers.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Two smiling women handed over dog-eared mass books and two leaflets.
Was your pew comfortable?
There were long wood pews, and receptive kneelers. Arrangements were fairly comfortable.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The congregation was quiet, with nothing more than a muted whisper audible.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit..."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
There was a specially-printed mass book, the contents of which were of mixed provenance. The first two pages detailed an unusual operation involving holy water, which sadly wasn't, on this occasion, on the menu. There was no hymn book, the hymns (both traditional and trendy) being on the service sheet.
What musical instruments were played?
Organ only. There was no choir, only a cantor in the organ gallery, singing the responsorial psalm. The congregation sang heartily, and the celebrant seemed to be in tune.
Did anything distract you?
I couldn't see much of what was going on up front from behind my pillar, so sought distractions in the congregation. There were plenty of those etiolated Anglo-Catholic young men, adopting to a man expressions of ecstasy at crucial points. There was a peppering of nuns, all dressed as from the same order, but sitting as far apart as they could. One speculated as to the atmosphere inside the convent. There were only two children present (both visitors), and no indication of any provision for them anywhere. The plaster saint attached to "my" pillar had miraculous properties as there was a well-established water mark on the parquet at his feet, though I suppose the accompanying floral tribute may be regularly over-watered. Hereabouts, one can usually rely on seeing members of the squirearchy in church, but unless disguised in lightweight manmade fibres, there were none present. The water boiler by the sink heaved and wheezed more and more as the mass proceeded.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The procession looked promisingly high, thurifer (no boat child), acolytes, crucifer, about 8 clergy (restricted view). Things proceeded up to the stratosphere, with two anomalies: you could barely smell, let alone see the incense burning; and the lady doing the intercessions let out an improbably evangelical "We just..." at the start of one of her rather lengthy petitions. Startlingly for this churchmanship, she lasted only one minute less than the sermon. The mass ended with the smoking and asperging of Our Lady, whilst we sang a rather fruity Salve Regina. There were three separate communion distribution stations, and unless one wished to make a spectacle of oneself, reception was done standing up.
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?
The sermon was a rehash of the Gospel: the pearl of great price from Matthew. Competent, though not especially memorable.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Seeing a senior nun, and an elderly pilgrim in a wheelchair, smiling as the only small child present pottered quietly up and down the side aisle. The vicar made a point of addressing each of his parishioners by name as they left, and chatted to them all. It would have been so easy for him to be distracted by exotica.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Being stuck behind a pillar, and so being unable to see machinations in the sanctuary, or even to see the celebrant/preacher. I'm still not sure which one he was. Worse was the absence of any Norfolk voices during or after the service. Where were the children?
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Nobody approached me, though it didn't matter as I was transfixed by the appearance of a server and several priests in lightweight sleeveless cassocks. Why are these not seen more often? They seem so sensible for hot weather. They did pose a problem which needed female advice: pin your shoulder straps (braces?) in chaps, you looked slovenly.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
This was most intriguing. It was served by three nuns from the aforementioned sink unit weak Safeway granules in china mugs for laity, with a small jar of Maxwell House making an appearance when a priest hove into view. I cannot comment on the strength of the latter. Tea was also available. Biscuits were not.
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 This is a hard question to answer, and no doubt a difficult parish to be vicar of. There was no shortage of clergy or of congregation, but no tangible sense of family or community as few were locals.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. The church was full of enthusiastic people enjoying a high standard of worship.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
Those sleeveless cassocks.