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  1028: St James, Spanish Place, Marylebone, London

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 XVI.

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 atmosphere?
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 service?
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 place.

What books did the congregation use during the service?
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?
Organ.

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 what?
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?
9 minutes.

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 about?
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 heaven?
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 coffee?
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 Christian?
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.
 
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