The church building is very memorable, and to my eyes very beautiful; it is often called ‘the cathedral of the back streets’ (Brighton, of course, being without a cathedral). It is classic Victorian, in an Italianate style, with outstanding stained glass. The main body of the church today is actually an addendum on the original church, which now comprises the north transept.
Quoting from their website: ‘From its beginnings Saint Michael’s has stood in the Catholic tradition of the Church of England … However, we are, of course very glad to have with us people of whatever Christian tradition, or none.’ And elsewhere on their website: ‘In response to Covid 19, our pattern of worship and pastoral care has changed ... Sunday Mass is at 10.30am and Friday Mass is at 11.00am … The Benefice Mass will be continued to be streamed on Facebook at 9.30am and later uploaded to YouTube.’ They seem very fond of children (read on!); however, again quoting from their website, ‘We have had to suspend our Treasure Seekers Sunday School and All Age Worship services at this time but children remain very warmly welcome … Again we have had to suspend our Little Angels playgroup and will try to reopen as soon as it is possible.’ Their Saturday breakfast café has also been suspended.
This is an extremely well-to-do area of Brighton. The Montpelier district comprises the classic Brightonian vernacular architectural style: bright white villas with high ceilings and bayed windows, steep streets with views to the sea, leafy tree-lined avenues and gated parks at the centre of gentile crescents. The area is very well-off, clearly, but also very progressive, with a growing student population.
Saint Michael's is in an interregnum, and the service was taken by the associate priest.
What was the name of the service?Parish Mass.
How full was the building?
I'd estimate there were around 30 members of the congregation, which I'm assured is a relatively healthy number for a run-of-the-mill Sunday, as this was. I didn't feel as though I was rattling around in the church, but it certainly was not full. Most people were from the surrounding streets, or visiting those who were.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes! A charming gentleman broke away from a long and detailed conversation with a regular to welcome me warmly. I collected a copy of the order of service from a filing box to which he directed me.
Was your pew comfortable?
The chairs were standard wooden affairs, with no cushions. Not exactly what you might call luxurious, but fine nonetheless.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Lively! Certainly by higher-church Anglican standards. Just a warning here, dear reader, that this Mystery Worshipper falls on the very tolerant end of the children-in-church debate spectrum. The pre-service scurrying about of excitable tots tested even my limits, but fell just the right side thereof. Aside from this, much chatting and catching-up was taking place.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
‘In the name of the Father, the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.’
What books did the congregation use during the service?
No books for the congregation; all printed in the service sheet (New Revised Standard Version translation and, I think, using the English Missal). I noted a rack of New English Hymnals on the wall as I left.
What musical instruments were played?
A very fine pipe organ. But no choir to speak of, and a rather reluctant congregation. This would have been fine, but for the fact that the service included four hymns, and the Gloria, Sanctus, Benedictus and Penitential Rite sung by the congregation (the Gloria to the tune of ‘Thine be the glory’). It all sounded a bit weak, sadly. Brighton is an increasingly student-y city, though, and perhaps there will be a bit more choir as the students return after summer break.
Did anything distract you?
As previously mentioned, quite a few young children participating in the service – in full voice, shall we say – though even this was mostly fine. The most distracting things were architectural: stunning mosaics lining the sanctuary and altar rail (not used), resplendent variegated marble behind the high altar (not used), three beautiful sanctuary lamps (lit). A truly stunning edifice.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
I think the phrase is ‘modern catholic.’ Bells and smells (though they were a bit tame with their smells), crucifers and acolytes, and the service was largely chanted by the celebrant (he did so rather well). However, the liturgy wasn't Prayer Book and was celebrated versus populum. Nothing about it was stiff, however, and that is clearly a conscious decision. I felt most at ease. Following the reception of communion, I was the only person to return to my seat straight away. Almost everyone lit a candle at the shrine of the Blessed Virgin or the Archangel Michael, or both, and a substantial minority took the opportunity to have a mingle and chat before returning to seats.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 — For me, the priest preached well. But it was rather political, which I know is an immediate red card for some. His style was simple and his message was clear. He also works in the care sector, which made for an interesting, if rather political, sermon.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The crisis in care, as linked to the gospel reading from Mark 9 (he who is first shall be last). (Brexit and the pandemic have combined to create a critical shortage of care workers throughout Britain, while at the same time the number of adults needing support has increased.) He was very keen to note, however, that he was not advocating any one policy, or any one party, to solve the crisis – rather, merely commenting on the Christian response thereto, which this Worshipper felt he did well.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The proclamation of the gospel, which took place in the midst of the congregation, surrounded by crucifer, acolytes, and thurifer. Reverential and beautiful. Don't be shy with the incense, though!
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The slightly sad levels of congregational singing. Work those vocal cords! Also the fact that a colossal amount of the service took place standing, including the entire liturgy of the Sacrament. This explained the lack of kneelers, thought I. It all left this Worshipper wondering how the Orthodox do it, as my Anglican feet were looking for a rest!
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
It took mere moments of me looking around the spectacular nave for someone to direct me to coffee in the adjoining hall, where I went. First, however, I spent some time admiring the breathtaking and very European-looking rose window and huge chapel of the Blessed Sacrament (the old high altar, before the new nave was completed in the mid-19th century).
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Delicious! Hot, and perfect strength. Tea, squash, and biscuits also available but not sampled by this Worshipper.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 — Would dearly like to return! Sad to be missing their patronal festival, taking place the Sunday after my visit.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The leisurely return from communion. Also the stunning beauty of the building. One of the most attractive parish churches I have ever visited.