Newman House, the Central Catholic Chaplaincy, London

Newman House Central Catholic Chaplaincy, Bloomsbury, London


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Mystery Worshipper: Kettle
Church: Newman House Central Catholic Chaplaincy
Location: Bloomsbury, London
Date of visit: Sunday, 29 January 2006, 10:30am

The building

One of those big tall London houses that look a bit like they house someone important, or at least have done. The flag of the Vatican is displayed outside, quite useful for identification purposes. Inside, it's an absolute rabbit warren, and not at all inviting to first timers. Many of the regulars live in the house, so people tend to assume you know where you're going. Fortunately the chapel was easy to find, and was quite big and open. (On the other hand, the toilets were not at all easy to find, and had no hot water.) The chapel is a plain room with brick walls and wooden chairs. A simple communion table stands at the front.

The church

Newman House is the chaplaincy centre for all the different universities in London, as well as a residence hall for students. During the main university term it offers a full programme for Christian growth. The chapel ministers primarily to the house's residents. The fact that most of the congregation live in the house breeds a certain informality – I spotted at least one girl in her slippers – and familiarity that can appear cold to the newcomer.

The neighborhood

It's in the heart of Bloomsbury, near the British Museum, close to several of the colleges of the University of London and a brisk walk from the shopping areas of Oxford Street and Regent Street. A wonderful area to explore after mass, but a little hard to get to on a Sunday morning via public transport for students from outlying areas.

The cast

The Revd Peter Wilson.

What was the name of the service?

Sunday Mass.

How full was the building?

Sparse at first, but comfortably full as the mass began. More could have fitted, but then it would have felt crowded.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

We were asked if we were "waiting for Chris." We said no, we're here for mass, whereupon we were waved through to the chapel. I wouldn't exactly call it a welcome. We were expected to fetch our own notice sheets from a table. Not realising this at first, I had to go back after getting settled in..

Was your pew comfortable?

A comfy chair, but no kneelers, which made kneeling during the eucharistic prayer very uncomfortable.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Quiet, very quiet, because almost no one was there until mass began. We'd had to get two buses and were early, while those actually living in Newman House all rolled in late.This was commented on in an extremely patronising way by Father Peter. It was a fair point: people should try to be on time, but were I living in the house, being talked down to in such a way would make me consider going to another mass elsewhere.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

A service sheet with the hymns, sung bits and readings.

What musical instruments were played?

Just a piano.

Did anything distract you?

During the recessional hymn, the priest started doing a silly dance at the back, distracting people in a very irreverent way. The choir giggled and sang in silly voices. It was the best hymn in the whole service, so it was a real shame to have it spoiled.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

Unhappy-unclappy best describes it, I'd say, except for the priest's dancing at the end. I don't think any of the hymns were from the last century, let alone this one. It was old-fashioned without being traditional.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

12 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

4 – Father Peter came across as quite pompous and patronising.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

He covered quite a lot. The sermon was mainly about authority, and who in authority is deserving of our trust, and why we should trust the Church rather than our own thinking. We should "mind the gap" between what we believe and how we act. I would have preferred an explanation of the Old Testament reading, which was a baffling passage.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

Oh dear. Erm... Oh dear!

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

The choir singing in so many parts that it was impossible to hear the melody. Feeling very much an outsider. Kneeling on that hard, hard floor. Feeling patronised. The pep talk about lateness. The whole thing felt like being in Sunday school again! Ugh!

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

A girl introduced herself to me. "Great! I'm being welcomed!" thought I. Turned out it was her first time too, and she was taking a more proactive approach by introducing herself and starting converations with others, since no established members were forthcoming. One other girl, a regular, did chat a bit with me, which was nice, but she let on that she only comes here to see the people she used to live with.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Sadly, not fairly traded – in fact, I spotted a tin of a well-known rather common brand! When I asked someone about fair trade and social justice, I learned that the last time someone had mentioned it, it was laughed off with a comment about fair trade not tasting nice. I'm sure exploitation tastes worse.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

1 – Patronising and old-fashioned. I'm sure there are Roman Catholic churches in London, even near universities, that can do better. Were this my parish church, I'd go elsewhere or stay in bed!

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

No. It made me glad not to live in London.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

That there are Christians who enjoy being treated as children by their church, and told not to think, but rather to do as the Church tells them.

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