Mystery Worshipper: Leo
Church: St Aidan's
Location: Harehills, Leeds, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 4 September 2011, 10:00am
St Aidan's was built as a memorial to Bishop Woodford, formerly vicar of Leeds Parish Church and later Bishop of Ely, in the 1890s in Romanesque style in the form of a basilica similar to those in Ravenna. Its most famous feature is the huge mosaic over the high altar of scenes from the life of St Aidan, completed in 1906 by Anglo-Welsh artist Frank Brangwyn. The mosaic was cleaned up in 2002 after years of candle smoke from the big six (immediately below it) and incense had taken their toll. The font, made of Mexican onyx and green, blue and red marble, weighs a ton and a half and has been described as one of the finest pieces of ecclesiastical sculpture. A huge brass lectern, with angels blowing out the gospel to the four corners of the earth, stands near the font. It is reportedly worth about £36,000 but, even so, there are those (myself included) who would prefer something else.
I first came to this church 40 years ago as a new student, away from home for the first time and very homesick. I had not been back for more than 30 years. In my day, about half the congregation were white and middle class and travelled in for the bells and smells. Now, the congregation is about 75 per cent Afro-Caribbean. Although St Aidan's has an Anglo-Catholic ethos, it is far from prissy or conservative. Along with the nearby Roman Catholic church, it sponsors a Society of St Vincent de Paul group, dedicated to tackling poverty and disadvantage by providing direct practical assistance to anyone in need. It also carries on a strong involvement in a community project that provides English lessons and computer resources to asylum seekers and refugees.
Harehills is an inner-city area a mile north-east of the Leeds city centre. When the church was built, this area was "New Leeds" and relatively prosperous. I remember it as one of the happiest places where I have lived, albeit a long time ago. But today the area is in the top five per cent of the most deprived areas in the United Kingdom, with high unemployment, crime, drugs and prostitution, although recent crime statistics suggest that the area no longer deserves its criminal reputation. Cheap housing attracted many Commonwealth immigrants from the 1950s onward. Roundhay Road, where the church is set, is sometimes referred to as the Curry Mile because of its large number of curry houses. In the 1970s the church was surrounded by red brick, back-to-back terraced houses, but many of these have been cleared away and replaced by a park.
The preacher and principal concelebrant was the Revd Tony Bundock. Among the other concelebrants were two women priests (for this is a Forward-in-Faith free zone) and the Revd Canon Alan Taylor, vicar since 1983, and who is also Liberal Democrat councillor for the area and Lord Mayor of Leeds.
What was the name of the service?Healing Mass.
How full was the building?
The church was built to seat a thousand. (It can comfortably seat 500 but I have seen it packed out with many more when extra chairs have been added.) But there were only about 30 when I arrived five minutes before the service. By the gospel, there were 101. People walking in late was always a feature of this congregation, a fact that I had forgotten. But that is good because it feels like home.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
A woman asked, "Do you want a book?" My friend, who had forgotten his specs, said he'd share. But she insisted, "Oh no, you can't share!" and handed him a book with a "Here."
Was your pew comfortable?
Chairs with plenty of kneeling space. However, in the modern Catholic fashion, there was hardly any kneeling.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quietly expectant. Any conversation was whispered.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Welcome to mass today, especially if you are a visitor."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Celebration Hymnal for Everyone.
What musical instruments were played?
Organ.The organ dates from 1896 and was built by Leeds organ builder James Binns (though a more famous organ of his is in St Bartholomew's, Armley, across the other side of the city). Its console is reached by ascending many steps and is not for those afraid of heights, although I am informed that the current vicar has a very accurate aim with chocolate mini-eggs at the end of the Easter Sunday mass.
Did anything distract you?
Someone very good-looking in front of me, but that's part of the worship. Also being conscious that my friend, who is not a believer, has a very sharp awareness for inauthenticity in church services and I was wondering what he was making of this mass.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Relaxed, homely yet dignified bells and smells. Because many different languages are spoken in this community, the gospel was also read in French. On some occasions it is read in Shona. The laying on of hands for healing was speedily accomplished by three teams of three ministers. The sharing of the peace was a time of general walkabout, in contrast to my day when it wasn't allowed.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
6 – Father Bundock preached from behind the altar and his voice was not very exciting. I am sure that he has preached better sermons and that he was somewhat hampered by the need to be brief because of the laying on of hands that was to follow.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Just as men are often reluctant to see their doctors, so we are reluctant to face up to our sins, but they can be easily sorted out. We don't have to buy into the cult of perfectionism because it is Christ's perfection that is the bridge between us and God.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
All of it. From the moment I walked into this huge building, my mind was flooded with memories of all the people, many of whom have since died, who made me feel at home in this church and who had invited me for meals and to the pub.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The same thing. Memories of a past that cannot return but which has made me the person that I am today. Sadness mingled with joy.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
No chance to look lost. On my first visit all those years ago, someone asked, "Eh love, are you new?" It's the same now. Three people actually remembered me and introduced me to others. I normally hate coffee hour in churches but I did not get away from this one for 45 minutes.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Lukewarm tea – my fault because I was chatting to so many people that I got there after the coffee had run out and this was all that was left. The lukewarmness of the tea was more than made up for by the warmth of the person who poured it.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
10 – The Catholic movement within the Church of England has been accused of being obscurantist and misogynist. This is demonstrably untrue insofar as this church is concerned because it is very incarnate and inculturated within its parish.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
My memories of a good experience here in the past coupled with my joy that this church still thrives today.