Mystery Worshipper: Wilderness Pelican
Church: St Bene't's
Location: Cambridge, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 14 March 2010, 6:00pm
Officially named St Benedict's, the church is called St Bene't's by the locals. Its Saxon tower is the oldest building in Cambridge and houses a peal of six bells dating from the 1600s and restored in 1932. Fabian Stedman (1640-1713), the inventor of English change-ringing, served as a parish clerk in 1670; Stedman Doubles and Stedman Triples figure prominently among ringing principles to this day. The church itself is Norman and dates from the 11th century. Passing ages have seen much alteration. The clerestory dates from the 15th century. The north and east walls were rebuilt in the 19th century, along with the aisles and organ chamber, but the south wall was allowed to remain. The interior is surprisingly light and airy. Two icons and a Marian statue, but otherwise simple and pleasantly austere.
St Bene't's is a parish of colleges, shops, businesses and university institutions. The majority of the congregation hail from outside the parish but come, according to their website, to appreciate the contemplative atmosphere. From 1945 until 2005, St Bene't's was home to Franciscan brothers from the Anglican Society of St Francis. The church still hosts an active chapter of the Third Order of St Francis and Companions of the Society of St Francis. A said and sung eucharist are celebrated each Sunday, and evening prayer is read. Once each month there is an hour of prayer and silence before the Blessed Sacrament.
St Bene't's is tucked away in a Cambridge back street. The immediate vicinity consists of shops, restaurants, other churches, and Cambridge colleges that have their own chapels.
The Revd Angela Tilby, vicar, assisted by a lay person for the healing service.
What was the name of the service?Evening Prayer and Healing Service
How full was the building?
Eleven in the congregation, so a fairly empty church, but it suited the style of the service.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
We were greeted by someone whose eyebrows were raised in wonder over whether we had actually come for the service. That resolved, we were handed Common Worship and The Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version.
Was your pew comfortable?
Usually I find pews very uncomfortable, but I remember nothing about these. I can only presume that they were fine.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Silence. The priest was sitting at the front, waiting for the time to begin. The atmosphere, rather than being scary and unwelcoming, was actually reverential and contemplative.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Welcome to Evening Prayer. The service is in the Red Book on page 244."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Common Worship and the New English Hymnal. No one actually used the Bibles we had been given.
What musical instruments were played?
No instruments were used. Unaccompanied singing seemed right for the simple service and small number of people.
Did anything distract you?
Not much distracted me, but I was occasionally led astray wondering whether the lighting was casting shadows in the sanctuary or whether it needed a paint job. A heavy rainstorm arose outside during the service. There was also a small disturbance from someone who I presume had been frequenting the local establishments.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Simple. Contemplative. Genuine. During the healing service, those in need of healing came forward and were anointed on the palms of their hands.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
There was not a sermon as such, but rather reflections directly after each of the two readings. Each of these was four minutes long.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 – The vicar was direct, concise and unsurprisingly a bit like Thought for the Day.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
She preached on the Prayer of Manasseh, from the Apocrypha (words expressing deep regret and asking God to be merciful in forgiving), and 2 Timothy 4:1-18 (Don't give up; preach the Word). What an amazing thing it must be to come to the end of your life and be able to say: "I have fought the good fight; I have finished the race."
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The measured and quiet nature of the service. Nothing was forced or pressured and everything seemed entirely natural.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
I did feel a small amount of pity for the gentleman behind me, who was suddenly called upon to lead the singing in the final hymn and couldn't quite pitch the notes.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I spent some time looking at the two icons. The vicar came up to me and made some comments about them. I then moved to the notice board, where I stood for several minutes without anyone talking to me, though there were loud conversations across the church among members of the congregation. I felt, given the nature of the service, it would have been appropriate for all to depart in silence. But the high-volumed discourse somewhat broke the mood, and the only silence to be had was the silent treatment afforded me.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There wasn't any.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 – I very much enjoyed the service, but it wouldn't be a true reflection of everything the church has to offer.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
It did indeed. However, it was not the gleeful and joyful elation of a big service with plenty of Wesley hymns, but a challenging, refreshing solace.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The stillness and calm. The new experience of being anointed on the palms of my hands.