Mystery Worshipper: Seoirse
Church: St John the Baptist
Location: Tuebrook, Liverpool, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 19 December 2021, 11:00am
Beautiful, imposing Victorian building, the work of the 19th century Gothic Revival champion George Frederick Bodley. Sandstone without, astonishingly beautiful within. Every inch of the building is decorated. Brockman Hall, their community hall, is next door.
Low mass and high mass are celebrated on Sunday, with mattins following the low mass. Low mass and mattins also take place each weekday. Working out of Brockman Hall is the Bridge Community Centre, whose mission (quoting from their website) is ‘to provide support and friendship to anyone who walks through our door, to help improve their quality of life.’ The Beatles played Brockman Hall in 1961, for which they were paid the grand sum of ₤20. Some claim that Brian Epstein discovered them there, not at the Cavern nightclub as is generally supposed.
Tuebrook is a working-class area in the north-east section of Liverpool. Tew Brook, which gave its name to the area, is a tributary of the River Alt that has been almost completely culverted, running underground for most of its length. The church is next to a long main road, with a building site next door, and a warren of streets and terraces.
A priest led and preached, with a subdeacon in attendance.
What was the name of the service?High Mass.
How full was the building?
Around 20 people in a building that could have seated 200. Mostly older people, although there was a multi-generational family in attendance.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
I was handed a service sheet and hymn sheet, and the people around me smiled and said hello as we all sat down.
Was your pew comfortable?
Hard wood and ramrod straight. Thankfully, there was a very generous pew cushion.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Mostly quiet, save for a few people around me chatting. The priest was pottering around setting up at the altar.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
'Thou shalt purge me …' to which the choir responded 'O Lord, with hyssop ...'
What books did the congregation use during the service?
There was a booklet with the order of service and readings, and another with the hymns and notices.
What musical instruments were played?
Did anything distract you?
It was a chilly December day in Liverpool, and the heating wasn't really a match for it. Also, the lack of amplification from the altar meant people were saying/singing their responses at various different tempos. Finally, the church seemed to be on a different lectionary to everyone else: they were reading the readings for Gaudete Sunday on the Fourth Sunday of Advent. I was quite looking forward to hearing a reading of the Visitation.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Achingly high Anglican. The mass opened with the Asperges. The priest was bedecked in a biretta, and the whole thing ended with the singing of the Alma Redemptoris Mater at the foot of a statue of the Blessed Virgin.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 — The priest mounted the pulpit, but unfortunately amplification was no better there than at the altar. I had to struggle to understand what he was saying, especially given the reverberation in a large church with scanty attendance.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
What does it mean to rejoice? Is it simply being happy, or is it something deeper? How can we rejoice in difficult times? The Lord is near to us: what is our response to this? Sunday rejoicing must mean weekday service.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
I very much enjoyed the traditional Anglo-Catholic worship. I have been abroad for four months, where the only Episcopal church has been much lower in its churchmanship. This service, done with reverence, care and attention, was a spiritual tonic that left me refreshed and spiritually renewed.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The lack of amplification from the altar made it hard to hear what the priest was saying at all times. And the sparse attendance was a little saddening; Liverpool is much more a Catholic city than an Anglican one, but it still made me a little glum to see such beautiful worship being appreciated by so few.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
The lady sitting in front of me, having seen me in my arm sling, very kindly offered to make me a cup of coffee. We then sat and chatted for a little while. It seemed that the congregation, though small, were close-knit, and everyone seemed to be enjoying asking after each other. The priest waited by the door and greeted everyone as they left.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
A modest spread at the back: instant coffee, some tea, big electric urns for hot water. There was a plate of biscuits; I had some bourbons, which were encouragingly firm and clearly new. They also had those fancy rectangular Jaffa cakes.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 — I don't live in Liverpool, and am only visiting briefly to see family. However, the next time I am up I will be sure to pay another visit to this stunningly beautiful building and its wonderful liturgy.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Definitely. This is clearly a loving community led by a caring, kind priest.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The lovely lady who made me a coffee, an act of Northern warmth and hospitality that I have missed since moving away.