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  1346: St Thomas the Martyr, Oxford, England

St Thomas the Martyr, Oxford

Mystery Worshipper: Betty McPhee.
The church: St Thomas the Martyr, Oxford, England.
Denomination: Church of England.
Comments: We have received comments about this report. Also see the discussion thread on our Ecclesiantics bulletin board.
The building: A 12th century church consisting of a nave with north aisle and north-west vestry, a chancel, west tower, and south porch. Entrance is through the porch. Different parts of the church have been modified at different times. In the 13th century a priest's doorway was inserted in the chancel, and a north aisle or chapel of two bays was added to the nave. In the late 15th or early 16th century the nave was almost completely rebuilt. Alterations continued throughout the following centuries. In 1875 the interior of the church was elaborately painted to the designs of Charles Eamer Kempe, a key figure in 19th century decorative art. In 1914 the chancel ceiling was decorated with a pattern of gold stars on a blue background; this was restored in 1962. Despite all of this, inside the building is quite gloomy, with a large nave and small sanctuary area.
The church: St Thomas' Church appears to have flourished from its founding throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance, but by the early 19th century its membership dwindled to fewer than ten persons. By the 1840s, though, its affairs seem to have taken a turn for the better, when the curate Thomas Chamberlain, a staunch Tractarian, introduced daily services, candles on the altar, the eastward position for celebrating holy communion, and eucharistic vestments. By 1866 membership exceeded 500. Today the church alleges itself to be a proud advocate of the Anglo-Catholic tradition in worship and ceremonial (although membership seems to have reverted to its 19th century level, and I saw nothing to be proud of at the service I attended, as will be seen). They celebrate solemn mass on Sundays and low mass on Wednesdays and Fridays. Interestingly, the website gives approximate duration times for each service.
The neighbourhood: Oxford was founded in Saxon times, and written mention of it dates back to 912. The city is home to the University of Oxford, the oldest university in the English-speaking world. In the 1830s, a group of Oxford scholars sought to demonstrate that the Anglican church was directly descended from the church established by the Apostles. Their beliefs, along with the controversy they stirred, became known as the Oxford Movement and drew attention to Oxford as a centre of theological thought. Today, the city is a mix of bustling commercial, residential and manufacturing areas (the BMW MINI is made in a suburb of Oxford) as well as quiet nooks of higher learning. St Thomas' Church is tucked away in Becket Street, an obscure little side street. I had to print off directions to find the place – if I hadn't, I'm sure I would have got lost!
The cast: The celebrant was the Rev. Richard Martin, SSC, one of many priests taking services during the interregnum. He was assisted by two servers.
The date & time: Sunday, 10 September 2006, 10.00am.

What was the name of the service?
Solemn mass and sermon.

How full was the building?
The building was practically empty. I counted ten people by communion time, including myself. I was the youngest by about 30 years.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
I was greeted with a "hello" and handed some books. I tried to look lost, but with only five minutes to go before the service started, it was myself and one other in the congregation. There was no one around me to smile at or say hello to. Slightly disappointing, really!

Was your pew comfortable?
The worst pew in Christendom! The pew was wooden with a stiff straight back, meaning that you sat extremely upright during the parts of the service where you had to sit. I knelt on a pew-cushion for most of the service.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
A quite capable organist was playing some music. What few people were present were on their knees in prayer. At least there were no crying babies! By 9.59am the altar candles still hadn't been lit, and the priest and acolytes were puttering around at the high altar with a set of matches and lighting taper.

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?
The English Hymnal and an A4 sheet produced by the parish with the readings of the day and gradual psalm. There was also a printed booklet provided by the parish with the words of the service (traditional form of Common Worship; however, collects and preface were taken from the English Missal).

What musical instruments were played?
Only the organ. The organist was able but not a cathedral organist by any standard.

Did anything distract you?
Yes! The second lesson was not the lesson published in the sheet. I jumped out of my pew as a woman behind me rang the sanctus bells. I don't know why one of the servers at the altar couldn't have done this – perhaps it was their way of including the laity. After the distribution of communion, there was a shuffling of papers and books coming from the organ loft. The celebrant and servers kept turning and looking up toward the loft. Finally the organist shouted "Just a minute!" from the organ loft. A minute later the hymn began.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The worship was very traditional. The celebrant wore a lacey alb, Latin chasuble, and biretta. It's what you would expect from a traditional Anglo-Catholic church; however, it could have been made more exciting. The gradual psalm was plainchant, and the congregation were not very good at it! The music for the Kyrie, gloria, sanctus and Agnus Dei was unknown to me and was not supplied. I felt detached from the service and was unable to take part.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
6 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
6 – Father Martin kept looking above the congregation's heads. He didn't make eye contact.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The gospel reading was about Jesus casting out unclean spirits and curing the blind and deaf man. Father Martin explained that each of the miracles in Mark's gospel invites us to confess that it is the Lord alone who gives hearing to our deafness. He said that to listen deeply is to pray deeply. To hear the song of songs is to hear our heart's longings and desires. We have ears and cannot hear, lips and cannot speak.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
I honestly felt that no part of the service made me feel like being in heaven – except perhaps at the end, when I heard champagne bottles being opened to celebrate Father Martin's 65th birthday.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The incident with the sanctus bells, the wrong reading being read, the organist shouting from the organ loft – the whole service was pretty awful!

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I handed my books in at the main door. Father Martin shook my hand and welcomed me, and we chatted awhile about the future of the parish and its hopes for a new priest. A lady approached me and asked if I wanted to stay for some champagne to celebrate Father Martin's birthday. I decided not to stay, mainly because of the lack of people staying and the fact that I was probably the only visitor they've had in the past 30 years – I was sure my cover would be blown!

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
I could see from my pew that there were two bottles of champagne and tea/coffee making facilities.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
1 – I simply couldn't go through that again. I had never been to this church before and would never go back. It's sad to think that other visitors may feel exactly the same. If they succeed in getting a new priest, he will have to make sure that the worship is livened up a bit and that young people and families feel welcomed and cared for.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Certainly not. I came away feeling that I hadn't even been to church. It didn't feel that I was praising God.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
It would have to be the organist shouting from the organ loft!
 
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