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|2041: St Thomas
the Martyr, Oxford, England
St Thomas the Martyr, Becket Street, Oxford, England.
Church of England, Diocese
of Oxford. This traditionalist congregation is under the
care of the Bishop of Ebbsfleet.
Typical English 12th century. The oldest part is the chancel,
with three Norman windows. The east window is 14th century,
and the nave and tower date from the mid 15th century. The north
aisle is modern by comparison, having been added in the mid
19th century. The interior is full of artifacts, each with its
own interesting story.
St Thomas Church has been closely associated with the Oxford
Movement from its earliest beginnings. These days the parish
maintains particular links with nearby St Barnabas and with
Pusey House, long a center of Anglo-Catholic worship, scholarship
and teaching. They apparently also host a Syrian Orthodox congregation.
As St Thomas Becket was martyred in 1170, this must once have
been the trendiest church on the block, albeit overshadowed
by nearby Osney Abbey. Nowadays one would hardly know the church
is there, as it is tucked away on a side street near the city's
post-office depot, and has something of the feel of a medieval
relic, set between bed-sit/bed-and-breakfast land on one side,
and modern apartment blocks on the other. Those who have discovered
it, however, know that when the sun comes out, the grounds are
a sylvan idyll in a busy city.
The Revd John Hunwicke was the celebrant and preacher, and the
Revd Michael Wright served as deacon. There were also a thurifer
and two acolytes.
The date & time:
Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Sunday, 15 August 2010,
What was the name of the service?
How full was the building?
It wasn't! The 20 or so of us assembled (all-age and quite diverse
in background) were, I was assured, a good congregation.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Very much so. It wasn't just that there was a lady with a pile
of service books and a warm smile at the door. A particular
point was made of wishing people good morning and pointing out
the more comfortable seats at the front, where the nuns used
Was your pew comfortable?
No. If you don't have the courage of your convictions and go
and sit at the front, you get a seat which, after a few minutes,
feels like an instrument of medieval torture. The scavenger's
daughter would seem like an overstuffed lounge chair by
How would you describe the pre-service
Quiet and devotional, with a strong smell of incense in the
air. I felt I had wandered into an ecclesiastical time warp
and emerged at a medieval high mass, where the only light was
from dozens of candles.
What were the exact opening words of the
Inaudible – I wasn't even sure which language they were in,
because part of me was half expecting medieval monks to turn
up chanting Latin. The first intelligible sentence was "O
Lord, open thou our lips", which came as a bit of a surprise,
not only because it was in English, but because I was expecting
a eucharist, not morning prayer.
What books did the congregation use during the
A home-produced booklet of their order of service (read Roman
Catholic novus ordo translated into Prayer Book English),
which I found impossible to follow; the Catholic English
Hymnal (words only); and a service sheet for Assumption
Day that explained a bit about the "extras" laid on
for the feast of Our Lady. As most of the service, including
congregational responses, was sung, sheet music would have been
helpful, but I didn't know to ask for that when I arrived.
What musical instruments were played?
An unusually fine organ for such a small parish church. Or perhaps
it just sounded good in the hands of someone who really knows
his way round the console and writes his own arrangements. Two
manual, 16 rank, pneumatic action; built by C Martin, Oxford,
1893; and just about to be taken apart for the thorough cleaning
it needs after a century's regular exposure to thick clouds
Did anything distract
The organist's choice of melody for one of the hymns. It seemed
vaguely familiar, but somehow out of place. Moreover, more than
one member of the congregation was having difficulty keeping
a straight face. Then I realised: the tune was the Eton Boating
Song. You try singing a hymn to the Queen of Heaven, without
giggling, if what's going through your mind is "Jolly boating
weather" and "Swing swing together, with your bodies
between your knees."
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip,
happy clappy, or what?
Smells and bells, but no liturgical fuss or self-important pompousness.
The only slightly odd thing (besides the choice of music!) was
the eucharistic prayer being interrupted for a post-consecration
procession to the statue of Our Lady of Osney, in the chancel,
to dedicate some sweet-smelling flowers that had been given
by a couple from the congregation to celebrate their wedding
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
5 Schoolmasterly. Not surprising, given his background
at Lancing College, one of England's leading independent schools.
In a nutshell, what was
the sermon about?
Father Hunwicke summarised St John Damascene's account of the
death of the Blessed Virgin Mary and how, upon finding her tomb
empty three days later, it was assumed that her body had been
"translated" to heaven ahead of the Resurrection.
(All that was left, apparently, were the grave clothes and a
smell of perfume; hence the tradition of doing things with rose
petals on her feast day.) When Pope Pius XII pronounced the
dogma of the Assumption in 1950, he stripped much of the legend
out of the story, and so "took all the fun" out of
traditional celebrations of the day. The importance of the doctrine
of the Assumption is that it shows Our Lady's power as an intercessor.
(Had he stopped here, I would have rated him a 9. But he suddenly
turned from Our Lady and Pope Pius to a naval battle – see
Which part of the service
was like being in heaven?
The Bible readings: the clear delivery of a couple of passages
from the New Testament, the quiet dignity of the lady calmly
standing at the lectern while a cantor intoned a chant between
readings, and the gospel being sung. A multi-sensory approach
to worship, while keeping the clarity of the Word.
And which part was like
being in... er... the other place?
Father Hunwicke went on to describe the Battle
of Lepanto as an example of how the intercession of the
Blessed Mother made it possible for good Catholic Christians
to slaughter very large numbers of those treacherous Muslim
Turks. How seriously/literally were we supposed to take it when
he solemnly informed us that we have all those confraternities
of peasants saying their rosaries to thank for Europe being
"free for ham sandwiches and the holy sacrifice of the
What happened when you
hung around after the service looking lost?
Many people lit candles before Our Lady of Osney; rather fewer walked to the house next door for coffee. But at least three different people engaged me in conversation and made sure that I felt welcome to join the after-service gathering – and that I knew where it was.
How would you describe the after-service
Cheerful instant coffee in mugs and a massive bowl of plums
freshly picked by a member of the congregation. There was much
to enjoy in the company of people who clearly care for each
other, are ready to welcome newbies, and have a self-deprecating
sense of humour. The social interaction seemed an integral part
of the worship – every bit as important as (almost an extension
of) the liturgical business in the church building. Those who
had to leave early sure missed out.
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 Really, the answer to this would have to be either
1 or 10, depending entirely on where one personally stood on
traditionalist issues. There's a lot more to traditionalism
than an all-male clergy. Some people commute long distances
to be at St Thomas because it gives good value in terms of what
it sets out to do.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a
No. I couldn't entirely get over the feeling that I'd been transported
not so much back in time as to a make-believe era that never
really existed. I certainly couldn't get over the embarrassment
of hearing the faith presented (even if it was tongue-in-cheek)
in terms of armed conflict with Islam, intellectual conflict
with empirical science, and generally holding out against almost
anything that's modern.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
A Marian hymn sung to the tune of the Eton Boating Song.
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