|709: St Margaret's, Paston, Norfolk, England|
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Mystery Worshipper: The Unholy Trinity.
The church: St Margaret's, Paston, Norfolk, England.
Denomination: Church of England.
The building: This is a reasonably substantial parish church set back from the road. The rectangular, flint building was swathed in darkness as we approached, and we had to feel our way through the graveyard to find the entrance. Inside, it is layered in history. The white plastered walls have been stripped back in places to reveal pre-reformation wall-paintings, including a three times life-size icon of St Christopher (shown above). An intricately carved rood-screen divides the church into two: the larger chamber is vaulted with dark oak beams and is filled with the congregational pews; the smaller contains the altar and two hundred years of Paston tombs. These are impressively embellished with carved stone effigies in Elizabethan dress and an array of fantastic poetry and memento mori. For this service, the church was lit entirely by candles, their flickering light cast strange shadows, adding to the historic atmosphere.
The church: The service was organized by the Paston Heritage Society. This church is part of a team ministry and has a service once a month.
The neighbourhood: The surrounding village of Paston takes its name from the family who founded the church. It's on the north Norfolk coast, and consists of the church, a large barn, and a smattering of houses. We approached it down a series of narrow country lanes. The little we could see in the dark appeared to be a mixture of grey stone cottages and red brick modern developments. The Paston family rose to prominence from out of serfdom in the 14th century, when they joined the legal profession, and were heavily involved with the Wars of the Roses. Much of the correspondence between family members during that period survives to this day.
The cast: The service was lead by a lay reader. He did tell us his name, and was in fact very chatty, but each of us thought the other had made a note of it.
What was the name of the service?
The service leaflet was entitled, "Service of Compline". However, the poster one of us saw plugging the service had it as a "15th Century style Candlemas". It was, in fact, a straight compline service, albeit in Latin.
How full was the building?
There were about 30 people scattered in a church that could hold around 150.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes, they were extremely welcoming. Although we were very late, one or two members of the congregation smiled at us as we slipped in. Another came over and made sure we were supplied with service sheets and candles.
Was your pew comfortable?
So so. These were late medieval wooden pews with flat seats and high back-rests. A nice wide shelf on the back of each would have provided plenty of space for books, and was more than adequate for our little tea-lights. The end of each pew was intricately carved; most were ornate floral designs but one was a decidedly grumpy-looking devil. One wonders who would have sat there! The kneelers, which we didn't use, resembled over-stuffed fabric dumplings. Most had been piled up on the unused pews towards the back of the church.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
For us, it was fraught. For nearly two hours we had felt our way along unfamiliar winding lanes. It was dark and the roads were icy, although the snow-covered fields lit up by the car headlights were eerily beautiful. Sadly, this meant we missed the beginning of the service.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
According to the booklet, "Iube, Domine, benedicere", or "Pray, Lord, a blessing". One suspects there would have been a few words of introduction in English before that.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
A printed service leaflet contained the liturgy and the two hymns were each typed on an A4 sheet. These were obviously made in-house but were clear and easy to follow. The service sheet was divided into two columns, Latin on the left and English on the right, enabling us to join in the Latin, yet still understand the service.
What musical instruments were played?
A recorder and a guitar. These seemed strangely out of keeping with the rest of the service. Afterwards the guitar player sighed that they would have loved to have had a choir, but it wasn't feasible. Instead, she'd tried to imagine that she'd been playing a lute.
Did anything distract you?
Everything and nothing. The style of the service was in itself the main distraction. Our historian was in raptures, as her inner Tudor revelled in the feeling of coming home. Our Latin scholar was puzzled by the reader's pronunciation, as every so often he switched between hard and soft 'g's and 'c's. She found out later that he was a classicist and was struggling with the ecclesiastical pronunciation. Finally, trying to work out whether three tiny tealights could actually provide any noticeable warmth to her frozen fingers distracted our scientist.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Restrained, reserved and glorious. The service was almost entirely in Latin, although the reader broke briefly into English to invite us to say the psalm with him. He read strongly and clearly, and we, with increasing confidence, joined in the responses. The candles flickered softly, casting strange shadows onto the painted walls, their smoke curling gently up to the rafters. The church smelt of candle-wax, smoke and, faintly, of incense. It felt timeless: much of the liturgy was familiar from the modern office of night prayer, and we were deeply aware that Christians down the ages had ended the day with these words. We weren't just in a church in the 21st century, we were there in the 13th and the 15th, and they were here with us. It was extraordinary.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
There wasn't a sermon. Just as well – our Latin isn't that good!
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
A few minutes in, the Latin took off. Suddenly it felt as if there were far more than the 30 or so of us present saying the liturgy together. The communion of saints seemed very real, gathering almost palpably around us to join with our prayers. The final "Deo gratias" rang out clear and strong, with the weight of centuries behind it.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Opinions were divided on this. The church was hellishly cold but, for one of us, seeing her breath as she sang just added to the sense of otherworldliness. Her hellish moment came when someone, trying to be helpful, turned on the electric lights so we could better see the tombs.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
We explored the church by candlelight. It was very welcoming, with people staying and chatting for a long time after the service. We split up, and one of us clambered onto a pew, holding her candle up high to better examine the wall-painting. Seeing her interest, a couple of the congregation came over and started chatting about the history of their church. No one seemed to mind the wax dripping down onto the floor. Another headed for the rood screen, where she was joined by various members of the congregation. They proudly showed off the tombs and told her of the body inside the altar. They even rolled up the carpet so we could see a brass of Erasmus Paston. These glimpses into the history of the church and the lives of the Pastons' buried within it added to our sense of awe, as we realised that this service would have been familiar to them. The third of our trinity wandered to the back, where the wine and the conversation both flowed freely.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was a veritable feast. We were served red wine or hock, together with little cheesy biscuits and breadsticks, with mineral water for drivers. The hock was pleasant, as were the nibbles. They didn't even mind one of us absentmindedly holding on to a wine glass and only giving it back after they'd washed up.
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 The service was wonderful, the people friendly, and the after-service refreshments infinitely better than the standard church coffee. It was, however, a special service, and so wouldn't be like this every week. It was also a trek to reach, and rather cold when we did eventually get there.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. As the congregation became confident and their Latin responses rang out, there was a very real sense of the saints down the ages, together with the angels praising with one voice.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
As we left, one of us loudly described the service as "a string of mini spiritual orgasms". The other two swear that they won't forget the expression on the face of the dignified lady behind us when she announced this!