Mystery Worshipper: Traveller
Church: All Saints
Location: Northampton, England
Date of visit: Wednesday, 25 February 2009, 7:30pm
All Saints is a wonderful classical late 17th century church, rebuilt on a much older site after the centre of the town was destroyed by fire in 1675. Given the date and the circumstances, the style is heavily influenced by Sir Christopher Wren and St Paul's in London. The building is a basic box shape, but with a central dome with lantern, classical portico and narthex at the west end with the original tower above. The interior is very open, with four massive pillars supporting the barrel-vaulted roof but not disrupting the sight lines within. The interior is richly decorated and ornamented, with beautiful dark wood for pews, panels and the galleries. The pews on the ground floor would seat around 350, and there are galleries around the sides that would hold another couple of hundred.
According to their website, they see themselves as forming three distinct congregations: weekday, weekend and civic. In their music program they count boys' and girls' choirs (with a waiting list to join), 12 choral scholars and six lay clerks, plus bellringers. They characterize their liturgical leanings as "traditional but not old-fashioned." There are two eucharists each Sunday, with eucharist and evensong during the week. The fact that they have a boys’ choir that sings choral evensong several times a week is the reason that we went to this church for Ash Wednesday.
All Saints is located in central Northampton, surrounded by shops and offices with a splendid Victorian guildhall just down the street. The town was the centre of shoe making in the days before manufacturing was sent offshore. The town is still the county town of the eponymous shire.
The celebrant was the rector, the Revd Simon Godfrey; the preacher was the Revd Canon Frank Pickard.
What was the name of the service?Choral Eucharist with the Imposition of Ashes
How full was the building?
A modest congregation for a midweek evening service; around 30 people sitting in the centre block of pews didn't look lost, but the outer areas and galleries were empty. The choir and sanctuary party outnumbered the nave congregation.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
A friendly smile accompanied the proffered service leaflet, prayer book (for readings) and hymn book.
Was your pew comfortable?
Not bad. I did not feel uncomfortable at any point in the service.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
We arrived 15 minutes before the service began, and the muffled sound of the six bells ringing competed with the distant choir rehearsal for a few minutes until the bells rang down and the rehearsal finished. The organist then began a contemplative Bach prelude until the service started. Some people chatted quietly, but it wasn't intrusive.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Thou hast mercy on all, O Lord" followed the unannounced opening hymn.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The parish's own printed leaflet for choral eucharist; Book of Common Prayer for the collect, epistle and gospel; and pew sheet for hymn numbers and notices. The hymns all came from the New English Hymnal.
What musical instruments were played?
A rather good pipe organ was used for the prelude, to accompany the hymns, and for the final voluntary.
Did anything distract you?
I found the words of the liturgy distracting. I am used to most things in the Church of England from straight Book of Common Prayer through the Alternative Service Book and most offerings from Common Worship, and have watched liturgical practice from snake-belly low to nosebleed high. However, a lot of the phrases and practices used here I had never heard or seen before. The rubrics referred to "the sacred ministers" and "the secret is said;" the Lord's Prayer was interrupted before "For thine is the kingdom" for an inserted prayer from the celebrant; and the service concluded with "The eucharist is ended, go in peace." The service leaflet gave no clue to the origin of the liturgy so I was left wondering, which was distracting. Checking the parish website later, I found that "The majority of our service [sic] use the language of the Book of Common Prayer as their basis, though we look to the liturgies and rites common in England before this date for inspiration for feast days and festivals." Google and the Ecclesiantics board on Ship of Fools were my sources later to find that the liturgy owes more to Rome than to Canterbury.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Way up the candle with bells and lots of smells. The robed choir consisted of 18 boy trebles with another 15 or so men and boys in the lower voices. The choir sang Byrd's Mass for Four Voices as the setting and Allegri's Miserere Mei (in English) as a communion motet. The first hymn of "Forty days and forty nights" can be a minor key dirge, but was relieved by a switch to the major key tune of "Buckland" for the final two verses a delightful and surprising modification.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – Canon Pickard had notes, but spoke clearly and fluently rather than reading a prepared speech. He seemed well organised, and he covered his points efficiently. His style was serious, as befits the season of Lent. His delivery was clear, but it was during the sermon that I realised (as there was a visible microphone on the pulpit) that there was a sound system in the church, with the speakers well concealed in the old building.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
We should look at our lives during Lent, thinking about how they should be part of our Christian witness. He reminded us that ashing returned officially to the Church of England with the Lent, Holy Week and Easter book of 1984, but had been done unofficially before that, borrowing from other rites. It is difficult to get a balanced view of our own lives, as there is a danger either of overemphasising our failings or of being too modest about the flaws that we do have. Most of us are "frayed around the edges" by life, not sinners that the Sunday tabloids would report, but sinners anyway. Our lives are a witness to non-Christians who know our allegiance: if our lives do not match our profession, we deserve their scorn.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The interior of the building is gorgeous and in beautiful condition. A time traveller from its earliest days could return now and see very little difference. Sitting listening to the wonderful organ with the fantastic architecture around me could be my idea of heaven. The choir processed in red cassocks and shining white surplices and ruffs to show how a choir can (and should) behave.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
I hate to say this, but the choral music. Any church that can support two choirs with children only on the top line, with older boys staying on to sing in the back row, has to be doing many, many things (such as choir camaraderie) very, very well but the Byrd and the Allegri weren't among them. Both of these are fiendishly difficult pieces to do well, and one is spoiled by having access to broadcasts and CDs. But here, this music too often showed up flaws in technique and tuning. The treble soloist hit his Allegri top Cs cleanly with good tone, but the choir support wasn't there. This was a grade 6 choir attempting (or being made to attempt) grade 8 music. I tried not to wince too visibly or too frequently, but it was hard.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
We stayed seated to the end of the organ voluntary, by which time most people had left. The rector shook our hands and spoke briefly, but that was all.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Non-existent. Not surprising for a small group after a weekday evening service. have a newly-opened coffee shop in the narthex, but it is leased out rather than run by the church.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
4 – One visit on a special occasion makes it difficult to judge, so I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, the building is superb. But sadly, the choir did not live up to its reputation this evening. If it lowered its sights to do simpler things well, it could be fantastic. A more permanent influence, however, would be the form of liturgy used. Here is a church lamenting in the notice sheet the recent vote in the general synod of the Church of England moving toward the ordination of women to the episcopate and complaining that the Forward in Faith demands are not being met in full. Yet they use a form of liturgy that is not authorised for general use by the C of E and that owes more in its makeup to another Christian church, without acknowledging that loyalty. It makes me feel that the current changes in the C of E are making them confront the inconsistencies already present in their allegiances, rather than creating them.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, I find the imposition of ashes a moving occasion and this was no exception.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The sight of choir stalls full of decently presented and robed boys and men in a wonderful setting.