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2958: St Gregory the Great, Cheltenham, England

St Gregory the Great, Cheltenham (Exterior)
Photo: © Philip Halling and used under license
Mystery Worshipper: Secret Squirrel.
The church: St Gregory the Great, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, England.
Denomination: Roman Catholic, Diocese of Clifton.
The building: The work of architect Charles Hansom, of Hansom cab fame, St Gregory's was begun in 1854 and is in the Decorated style. The excellent stained glass and carvings are well described on their website. Everything shines and looks beautifully kept. An ongoing fund-raising appeal has resulted in the tower and spire being restored, with the clock once again fully functional. The appeal has also facilitated repairs to the heating system and installation of a new floor.
The church: Their website also describes the many activities they offer for men, women, children, youth and seniors. Among these are several charity projects as well. We were encouraged to join carol singing at a nearby supermarket for one of the projects. Saturday vigil mass is held at the parish's other church, St Thomas More, and three Sunday masses are celebrated at St Gregory's, including a Sunday evening mass.
The neighbourhood: Cheltenham, in Gloucestershire, sits at the edge of the Cotswolds, a beautiful area of rolling hills and quaint villages. St Gregoryís is just off the main shopping street. I hadnít been to mass here before as the parking always looks so difficult.
The cast: By a process of elimination, I deduced that the celebrant was the Revd Frank Wainwright, assistant parish priest. I gathered that the parish is about to receive a new priest, who was identified only as Father David, and so I assumed that Father David was not the celebrant of this mass. The celebrant was assisted by the Revd Mr Robin Littlewood, deacon, who read the gospel. There were eight altar servers of various ages.
The date & time: First Sunday of Advent, 29 November 2015, 9.30am.
Comment: We have received a comment on this report.

What was the name of the service?
Sunday Mass.

How full was the building?
The church was pretty full. The congregation appeared to be an international mix of folk. It was good to see families of all ages worshipping together. It filled up as more people arrived after the entrance procession. However, quite a lot of people left during the last hymn.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
We were worried about parking and arrived early. We saw other people driving into the school playground and so we followed. There, we were warmly welcomed by a lady who was marshalling traffic. She told us that the playground was specially open for Father Davidís induction mass but gave us some ideas about where else we could park on other days. In the church itself two ladies handed us some books and said hello.

Was your pew comfortable?
Wooden pew of reasonable comfort. A lady in front of me had a cushion but I think she had brought it with her. I lost a pound coin in the slat in the back of the pew in front of me and couldn't retrieve it without making a fuss, so the parish will get an extra donation when they find it.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Prayerful, reasonably quiet. People were exchanging greetings but were not chatting. Even so, we found ourselves behind three people who were talking about the forthcoming Christmas fair and gossiping in general, but we were just unlucky.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"In a change this week Iím going to bless the Advent wreath as itís Advent Sunday, and then we will light the first candle."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
The Laudate hymn book and a parish mass book for the text of the mass.

What musical instruments were played?
The organ, a beautiful tracker instrument by the Dutch organ builder Sebastian Blank.

St Gregory the Great, Cheltenham (Organ)
Photo: © Andrewrabbott and used under license

Did anything distract you?
The children had been at their own liturgy of the Word. They processed up the church carrying sheets of paper. The priest told us that these were proper religious themed Advent calendars. When the kids went to their seats, the rustling of the sheets and the excited discussion between the children and their parents about the calendars created quite a long period of noise and kerfuffle. The parents didnít seem to realise that it might have been more appropriate to refocus their children and have this chat after mass.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was a very normal Sunday mass. The priest appeared to be a warm and friendly soul, and this came across in the service. I was a bit worried that so many servers would mean a very formal mass, but this was not the case. The servers were, however, all well trained but not too rigid in their actions.

St Gregory the Great, Chelteham (Interior)

Exactly how long was the sermon?
We didnít have a sermon. Instead, the Bishop of Clifton, the Rt Revd Declan Lang, had sent a pastoral letter to be read out in all parishes. It took about five minutes to read the letter.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – Well, it was read, not preached. My companion reckoned this letter was his little bit of heaven.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The letter marked the start of the Jubilee Year of Mercy, which Pope Francis has decreed for 8 December 2015, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, through 20 November 2016, the Solemnity of Christ the King. The Holy Door at St Peter's Basilica will be opened in a solemn ceremony, symbolising Christ as the open door to the Father. This will be followed by the opening of a Holy Door at the Basilica of St John Lateran and at cathedrals, basilicas, shrines and churches throughout the world. We were encouraged to visit the Holy Door that would be opened in Clifton diocese. The bishop encouraged us to think about mercy and to ask ourselves how merciful we are to others, especially those on the margins of society.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The church is beautiful. I was lost in thought as I gazed at the carvings and especially the Stations of the Cross with the gilt highlights. After communion a little boy sitting near us told his mother, ďIíve said my prayer.Ē To which his brother chimed in loudly, ďIíve said three prayers!Ē Competitive prayer is always entertaining.

St Gregory the Great, Cheltenham (Window)

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The singing was shocking. The first hymn was ďMarantha, Come Lord Jesus.Ē No one around me sang. I thought it was because it was a hymn that only comes out at Advent and people didnít know it or they werenít warmed up so early in the morning. I gave a bit of encouragement and some folk joined me. For the other hymns I left them to it and the result was dismal. The crowd was a mixture of ages so there should have been some strong voices there. They also had difficulty with the sung parts of the mass, which you'd think they'd be familiar with. The last hymn was particularly dreadful, as so many people had left the church by then Ė maybe to avoid the singing!

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
No one approached us. There are two ways out of the church and we hung around and decided in the end to head to the one at the back. There, we found ourselves in a hall where coffee was being served.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Coffee and biscuit selection, with a bowl to put a donation in. I think it probably was fair trade, as there was a stall selling fair trade goods in the hall. There were several tables with parishioners drinking coffee and chatting. No one approached us, so we drank our coffee and left.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
3 – The hymn singing and the late arrival and early departure of many of the crowd made me think that the parish was a bit lukewarm. Although we had been welcomed by the designated welcomers, no one else acknowledged us. I prefer a community with a more wholehearted worship.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, but an outsider could be led to believe that some of the congregation were not so glad to be Christians and were putting in the minimum effort required of them.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
ďIíve said my prayer." "I've said three prayers!Ē
 
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