|Comment on this report, or find other reports.
|Our Mystery Worshippers are volunteers who warm church pews for us around the world. If you'd like to become a Mystery Worshipper, start here.
|Find out how to reproduce this report in your church magazine or website.
||1028: St James, Spanish Place, Marylebone, London
Mystery Worshipper: Thames Swimmer.
The church: St James, Spanish Place, Marylebone, London.
Denomination: Roman Catholic.
The building: The building dates from 1890 and looks as though it
were plopped down diagonally in the middle of the block, perhaps pointing
toward Rome just as mosques point toward Mecca. Very cathedral-like in appearance
both inside and out. The interior is full of nooks and crannies containing
statues, candle stands and bookcases. The sanctuary is heavily gold-leaved,
and the church on the whole reminded me of an All Saints Margaret Street
pumped up a bit.
The church community: The parish itself, as its name suggests, is descended
from the Roman Catholic chapel of the Spanish Embassy to Queen Elizabeth
I, which was located on Spanish Place (thus the name). It sponsors a large
number of societies ranging from a Walsingham pilgrimage group to a Taizé
prayer circle. The parish masses run the gamut from an Old Rite mass early
on Sunday to the 10.30 sung Latin mass which I attended. The congregation
were very multicultural and surprisingly mixed in age.
The neighbourhood: Whilst walking to the church from Baker Street,
I noted that many of the shops were bridal shops. The Wallace Collection
occupies the space just south of the church in the former Spanish Embassy
building. It’s a very quiet neighbourhood (at least on Sunday morning)
and full of blocks of flats in buildings named Such-and-so Mansions.
The cast: The Rev. Terence Phipps, rector.
What was the name of the service?
Sung Latin Mass and Te Deum for the installation of Pope Benedict
How full was the building?
Between one-third and one-half full.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
My first touch of nostalgia for 1950s Roman Catholicism was provided by
a group of ladies, all in hats, who welcomed arriving worshippers. However,
the book I was handed (a hymnal) was not actually used during the service.
Was your pew comfortable?
There were stiff-back hard-seat wooden chairs, with no obvious place to
put hymn books, leaflets or other material. A free-standing kneeling bench
ran down each row. Comfortable? Not all that bad for an unpadded chair.
How would you describe the pre-service
There was a steady stream of arrivals preceding and during the service.
Candles were lit, seats claimed, but a reverential space was kept between
people. The second touch of nostalgia came when I spied the rosaries emerging
from pockets and beads being told. There were lots of babies, but no crying!
Then the sacristy bell tinkled and off we went.
What were the exact opening words of the
Father Phipps began with “In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus
Sancti.” However, the choir had previously sung a plainsong introit
that pleased my ear but couldn't be understood given the acoustics of the
What books did the congregation use during the
Upon entering, I was handed a bulletin and hymnal, neither of which was
used. Ushers distributed the Association for Latin Liturgy Mass VIII:
De Angelis and a Te Deum leaflet. Others who arrived after
mass had begun got a different book with the Latin propers. There was, however,
no sign of a leaflet with introit, collect, readings, and other prayers
for that particular Sunday. As I took my degree in Latin and Greek, I could
have put such a leaflet to good use.
What musical instruments were played?
Did anything distract you?
A range of distractions beckoned the wandering eye and ear, and I fear I
succumbed: the gold-leafed sanctuary, the gold fiddleback that Father Phipps
wore, the clicking of rosaries around me, the dove suspended from a canopy
over the pulpit, my own memories of Latin masses served decades ago.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or
It was Gregorian for the most part. I was intrigued to see that the readings
were in English but ended with Verbum Domini (the word of the Lord).
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 I was impressed by the topicality of this sermon and the fact that it was not triumphalist, but catholic in the best and truest sense of that word.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon
John 14:1-6 has come up frequently for Father Phipps lately: "In my
Father's house there are many mansions." The Church is Christ’s
Church, not ours. The call to salvation is addressed to everyone, a point
that was made by the Pope in his sermons over the past few days. The Catholic
Church is universal, but people other than Catholics also have access to
salvation, because it is Christ who brings salvation.
Which part of the service was like being in
The music sung by the choir (who were really the choir invisible, as they
were hidden away in the clerestory) was heavenly.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
There was nothing hellish about this service, but if we can transport the
locus to Purgatory for a moment – I think that the acoustics would belong
there. As a Latinist and former altar boy in the days of Pius XII, my Latin
is fairly good. However, the sung introit fuzzed away above me in the tall
nave. Father. Phipps’s diction when he sang the collect was impeccable,
but either the microphone or the characteristics of the space blurred his
consonants to the point that I could make out only occasional words.
If intercessory prayers were said, what issues were raised?
They took the usual form of Church, world, worshipping community, those
who are ill, and those who have died. Particularly mentioned were Pope Benedict
XVI and the general election.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Well, my impression has always been that RC churches move 'em in and move
'em out with no time for conviviality. However, Father Phipps announced
that there would be tea and coffee in the crypt underneath the church. And
so after the Te Deum I explored the back of the church a bit and
then proceeded to the crypt.
How would you describe the after-service
The coffee was in proper cups with saucers, and the biscuits ranged from
digestives to Jaffa Cakes. I sat down at a table with an older gent, and
we were joined by a member of the Horse Guards who proceeded to discuss
the propriety of feeding beer to horses (something of which the Horse Guards
were accused, apparently). I was thrilled to learn that horses, when confronted
with cans of lager, will pick them up in their mouths, crush them, and drink
the contents with no special encouragement from Her Majesty’s Horse
Guards. Just then Father Phipps came to my rescue, making a beeline for
me and introducing himself. I did wonder for a moment whether he’d
counted the collection and discovered the mystery worshipper card. Two ladies
then sat down with us and discussed various aspects of the parish with me.
I left shortly thereafter, pleasantly cheered by the conviviality I found
at a coffee hour I hadn't been expecting.
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 Well, I swam the Thames, remember, so it would have to be zero.
However, were I still a Roman Catholic, I’d give St James a 10. They
really are a worshipping community worth joining.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a
I am always glad to be a Christian, and this service made me feel not only
glad, but also saddened by the divisions that make it necessary for me to
separate myself from these worthy Christians. Not being welcome to receive
communion was especially troubling. I must say that when I learned I would
be mystery worshipping a Roman Catholic service, I thought I might be overwhelmed
by a remembrance of things I’d long buried in my past. But that didn’t
happen, which was a relief. The Roman Catholic church has moved on, and
so have I. Deo gratias.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
Beer-drinking horses, I fear.
|We rely on voluntary donations to stay online. If you're a regular visitor to Ship of Fools, please consider supporting us.
|The Mystery Pilgrim
| One of our most seasoned reporters makes the Camino pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Read here.
| Read reports from 70 London churches, visited by a small army of Mystery Worshippers on one single Sunday. Read here.