Mystery Worshipper: Ian Climacus
Church: Christ Church St Laurence
Location: Railway Square, Sydney, Australia
Date of visit: Thursday, 10 August 2006, 6:00pm
A Victorian Gothic church with green spire, designed by Henry Robertson and completed by Edmund Blacket, who is well-known as the architect of many churches in New South Wales. Consecrated in 1845, the church was ravaged in 1905 by a fire that destroyed the organ and severely damaged the east end. Restoration was completed by the next year. The inside is a visual feast: stained-glass windows; a painting of St Laurence entering heaven; an ornate high altar; the tomb of Bishop John Coleridge Patteson, first bishop of Melanesia (martyred 1871); a number of modern paintings; and a set of icon-like representations of the great feasts of the Church.
This is high church, and as such attracts a congregation from a wide geographic circle, as high church worship is uncommon in Sydney. Along with other churches, the government of New South Wales, and private donors, they sponsor St Laurence House, which has assisted homeless young people in Sydney since 1978.
Railway Square is in the Sydney central business district next to the railway station. Youth hostels, hotels, and the University of Technology, Sydney are also nearby. Several people I took to be students were present.
No names were given, but going off the website: the Revd Adrian Maxwell Stephens, rector, presided, and the Revd Ron Silarsah, senior assistant priest, served as deacon. I cannot identify the subdeacon, servers or acolytes.
What was the name of the service?Patronal Feast: Procession and High Mass.
How full was the building?
Around 90 or so people, about a third of the number that could comfortably fill the building. People sat close together up front and then were more spaced out the nearer they were to the back. From their general appearance, quite a few people seemed to be homeless (but see the heavenly bits below for the way in which they were welcomed).
Did anyone welcome you personally?
I said "Hello" to the person who was handing out books and leaflets, but got no reply. Nor did my "Thank you" upon receiving the handouts get a reply. He did, however, greet the person in front of me and the one behind me. I would have felt more welcome had I picked the materials up myself from a table.
Was your pew comfortable?
Standard and comfortable pew, with some ornate woodwork at the open end. Cushions were provided for kneeling.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
I arrived about 25 minutes before the service. Evening prayer was being said in the south side of the church, and I joined the few who were participating. After the conclusion of this office, the bells began to peal, which was beautiful to listen to. People were either greeting each other and talking quietly, or reading the preparation prayers from the special mass booklet. These included a psalm and an excerpt from John Donne's Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions: "Surely the Lord is in this place...", which pleased me greatly as Donne is my favourite poet.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
Father Adrian moved half-way down the nave, turned to face the north, and said: "The angel of the Lord brought tidings to Mary." The Angelus continued.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
A booklet specially prepared for the feast, a leaflet with the day's readings and hymn numbers, and the New English Hymnal.
What musical instruments were played?
The organ, skilfully and beautifully played.
Did anything distract you?
I spotted a gentleman whom I had seen occasionally at the evangelical Anglican church I used to attend. It was strange seeing him in this setting, though if I've changed churchmanship, others surely have. Mobile phones intruded. The phone of the person in front of me rang during the collect for St Laurence, and he answered it and chatted for about 10 seconds. Later on he accidently bumped it, sending it flying off the pew and landing with an audible thud on the floorboards. During the intercessions, a woman answered her phone, moved to the back of the church, and had a lengthy conversation.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
High Anglo-Catholic. I may be Orthodox and used to ceremony, sights, sounds and smells, but this was a step up even for me. Birettas and copes (chasubles are banned in Sydney) were worn, and incense shrouded the congregation and swirled up to heaven. The altar party processed with banners during the first and final hymns.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
5 – Father Ron is, if I recall correctly, from Mauritius, and has quite a beautiful accent, together with a calm and melodic voice. While not one for long sermons, I thought that six minutes was a bit short for all that he attempted to cover.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
St Laurence was only mentioned briefly, as "we've all heard of him before." We were instructed to look forward in our faith to the next feast day of St Laurence and to the next year. I am unsure why, perhaps I missed the reason. We were encouraged to look to the poor, as St Laurence did, and to see Christ in them. The sermon finished with a short reading from Prudentius' account of St Laurence.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
I'm tempted to say the music – organ and choir were both superb, and the first hymn, "Light's abode, celestial Salem", with procession and prayers between verses, was particularly wondrous, as was Mozart's Coronation Mass, especially the Agnus Dei. But to me, what was most heavenly was the way the homeless were welcomed. I assume they are regular parishioners, as other parishioners waved and mouthed greetings, or came up to them and with a firm handshake or hug and welcomed them. As we celebrated St Laurence, and recalled his bringing forward the treasures of the Church to the people, it was a joy to see this being fulfilled in the community.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The mobiles going off and the conversations had on them were quite hellish. And some of the chanting was done way too slowly – if not exactly hellish, this was at least purgatorial.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Most people headed home, it being a weeknight. Someone made a joke about the the mad rush to return books at the end of the service. I wandered around looking at the various stylised icons of the great feasts of the Church, and one of St Laurence surrounded by a number of saints, but no one spoke to me. At best there were some silent nods of acknowledgement between myself and others. Someone joined me in prayer at the statute of Our Lady of Walsingham.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – I'm happily Orthodox, and while I'm not sure I could take a steady diet of high church, this is a wonderful place and it was wonderful to worship with this congregation.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Most definitely. The music and liturgy helped my spirit soar. Seeing the practical love shown to the homeless filled with me joy, while at the same time greatly challenging me to do likewise.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The welcome the homeless received, and how that challenges me in my meeting all people. May I see, and reflect, Christ in all.