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700: The Priory Church of St Andrew the Apostle, Hamble-le-Rice, Hampshire, England
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The Priory Church of St Andrew, The Apostle, Hamble-le-Rice, Hampshire, England.
Mystery Worshipper: Requiem and Dot.
The church: The Priory Church of St Andrew the Apostle, Hamble-le-Rice, Hampshire, England.
Denomination: Church of England.
The building: Based on the site of a 900 year-old priory, this church was damaged by French raiders in the 14th century, and only traces of the original building survive. It is approached down a straight path through a large, open graveyard. Hints of the church's maritime links can be seen in the carved stone anchors tucked away amongst the slumping gravestones. We entered through an intricately carved Norman arch into a surprisingly light and airy building. The nave is long, tall and narrow, and is roofed with an "upside-down boat" of dark oak beams. The church is a patchwork of architectural styles: there are plenty of Victorian additions, most notably the jewel-coloured stained glass and the memorial plaques on the walls, and a passageway leads through the Norman bell tower into a modern church hall. From this passageway we could see a large metal crucifix from the naval training ship "The Mercury" standing against one of the flint walls. The church's links to this ship are recorded in a stained glass window, which bears the motto, "Men are the souls of ships." Fine modern hangings, including a truly beautiful one of lilies on a blue field behind the altar in the Lady chapel, suggest a church that is continually evolving to meet the needs of its community. The church has plenty of Catholic touches: the sacrament is reserved in a cloth-covered aumbry; a holy water stoup (with explanatory card) is just inside the door; ugly painted stations of the cross hang on the white plaster walls and there is a dedicated area for the sacrament of reconciliation within the Lady Chapel.
The church: This seemed to be a friendly, welcoming community serving everyone from babes in arms to the elderly. A skittles evening was announced and the church is running Emmaus courses. Noticeboards announced several groups: "Cherubs" for little children and a youth club for teens. Children seemed to be valued within the church, with one chap telling us afterwards, "A church that doesn't welcome children is dead."
The neighbourhood: Hamble-le-Rice is a large, afluent-looking village a couple of miles out of central Southampton. It's only a short distance from both the city and the motorways, yet still retains the feel of a traditional village community. Parking is free, all week, and we noticed a fine-looking pub and a high street full of interesting shops.
The cast: The incumbant was on holiday, so the service was led by two retired priests. Fr. Geoffrey Waghorn celebrated and the sermon was given by Fr. Richard White.
What was the name of the service?
Sung Eucharist.

How full was the building?
The building was about three-quarters full with 70 adults present. A handful of kids joined us late in the service from Sunday School.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
I received a very friendly response to my initial enquiry by email. On our arrival, we were greeted briefly and handed a hymnbook and service booklet, but it didn't feel unwelcoming. In each pew there was a laminated card welcoming visitors regardless of denomination and explaining about the kid's play area at the back of the church. A nice touch.

Was your pew comfortable?
Yes. Traditional wooden pews, stained almost black. They were a little too upright, but didn't send our bums to sleep. The kneelers were of the hand-embroidered square cushion variety, including some new ones for the Golden Jubilee.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
We were a couple of minutes late and entered just as the choir and altar party were assembling at the back of the church. We slipped into our pews and joined the rest in listening quietly to the notices.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
We arrived during the notices. Unusually, the service started with the Peace.

What books did the congregation use during the service?
"Celebration for Everyone," a modern hymnal containing over 800 hymns. We were also issued with "The Parish Eucharist," a professional looking service booklet produced for the church and a printed service sheet with announcements, the readings and the collects for the day. As newcomers, we found these confusing and unclear. Many of the congregational responses were sung, but none of the booklets indicated this, and the chants were tucked in an appendix towards the end. We always felt a beat behind, fumbling to find the right page in the right book.

What musical instruments were played?
An organ was played with unusual restraint and lightness of touch.

Did anything distract you?
Our musical buff was distracted trying to figure out which side the sopranos and altos were sitting – it was reversed from the pattern she's used to . She also found the weird nasal voice of the chap in the pew in front offputting. Our liturgist was amused by the candles: there were six of them, tall, with a bulge in the centre that made them look as if they were standing on the altar. She did a mental doubletake when the priest walked in front of them. They were in fact standing on the floor but some mystery of perspective made them appear to be growning out of his head. Her attention was also diverted by a strange rasping noise part-way through the service. The lady to our left was putting the sermon time to good use in filing her nails.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
This was high Anglo-Catholic, done well. The service was infused with sincerity and genuine enthusiasm. The priest was vested in fiddleback chasuble, and deacon and subdeacon were correctly robed in matching dalmatic and tunicle. Two servers and a crucifer, each with an alarmingly large wooden cross on their breasts, completed the altar party. The church website promised incense. Alas, this was not to be, but the consecration was marked by the jangling of bells which, to our inexperienced ears, sounded exactly like the ring of an old-fashioned telephone. An excellent choir of a dozen or so supported our singing. The propers and the Lord's prayer were sung but, fortunately, the tunes were simple enough for us to pick up. The music was a strange mix: Victorian hymns, including one by Wesley, a Taize chant and a something repetitive and chorusy for the recessional.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
6 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
3 – It was rambling, disjointed and we never really figured out what he was on about.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
We're not quite sure. He promised to tell us when Easter was, but didn't. It started with a rambling anecdote about a battered mother leaving her children. Being without a mother's love leaves us bereft. We think he was trying to compare God's love for us to the self-sacrificing love of a mother, but this was never really spelled out. He closed by saying that our end of term report from God will be, "Could do better." It was a blessing that it was short.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The choir were particularly impressive. They obviously practice hard and their singing adds greatly to the service. Approaching the altar for communion was spine-tingling. As we neared they started to softly sing "Just as I am" and, one by one, the congregation joined them. It was a beautiful, intimate, peace-filled moment.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Sadly, the deacon's voice. It was bland, monotone and he had a tendency to swallow his consonants. He paused in odd places, breaking up the text, and didn't pause when the phrasing called for it. This made both the Gospel reading and the sermon extremely difficult to follow.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
We were directed with a smile to the church hall for coffee. Sadly, though, the quality of the welcome went downhill from there and we stood ignored for an uncomfortable few minutes. This was redeemed at the last minute by a very friendly chap who welcomed us and enthusiastically showed us around the church.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Tea and coffee were served in white china cups, accompanied by a fairly mothy selection of biscuits. It was pleasant but unexciting.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – This is a real gem of a church. The quality of music and singing were high and the liturgy was excellent. The community felt friendly enough and I suspect they would be more welcoming once they got to know your face. Both of us would be very happy to return here regularly if we lived in Southampton.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, it really did. It was great to be in a church that values its Catholic heritage yet is forward thinking and friendly.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The little girls – perhaps five and seven – who were determined to carry as many hymnbooks as their height would allow. Their granny helped by lifting up the chin of the elder to allow another couple of books to be added to her pile.
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