Mystery Worshipper: Jacobsen
Church: St Kenelm
Location: Minster Lovell, Oxfordshire, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 27 September 2009, 8:00am
The church was built by William, seventh Baron Lovell, in the 1450s, approximately ten years after the completion of Lovell Hall. The ruins of the hall lie behind the church and can be reached through the churchyard – one of the best kept country churchyards I've ever visited, though there was no evidence of sheep that I could see! The church is a wonderful example of its period, cruciform in shape. Mass dials on the buttresses used the sun's shadow to indicate service times. The north door is enclosed by a porch with recesses, empty now, but which once may have held statues and a holy water font. The tower pillars are crowned with heads, perhaps those of King Henry VI and Lady Lovell, among others. The inside is tiny and the space for pews is limited, very little more than is given to the chancel with its choir stalls. The interior was drastically renovated in 1869, broken stone fragments and odd pieces of stained glass being all that remain of former columns, tombs and memorials. At the entrance to the Lady chapel there is, however, a magnificent alabaster tomb with effigy, presumably of the founding Lovell. Among the baron's mourners carved thereon are the Blessed Virgin and St Christopher with the Christ Child. The vestry, which may at one time have been a hermit's cell, is outfitted with squints, one looking in from the churchyard and the other looking out to the altar. Lepers or other undesirables could thus have a peep in at the goings-on.
This is the village church. My visit coincided with the harvest festival, and the decorations accorded with this. Even in this tiny place, increased mobility of travel has led to a less constant congregation, with an at-times unpredictable turnout. However, the notice board was full of information about local activities, from the historical society, the prayer hour, and joint services with other local churches, so the church obviously continues to serve the local community.
Minster Lovell is quite lovely – pure picture postcard, with thatched cottages and well tended gardens. It is very quiet, with the local mill tuned hotel situated by the river Windrush, with many willow trees. Former British prime minister Harold Wilson and his wife Mary, Baroness Wilson, spent their honeymoon at the hotel. The church is reached by a road not recommended to motor traffic (not that that will put off residents), which descends in a curve to an even more retired spot, where the manor farm and church form a dead end.
The Revd Adrian Gabb-Jones, vicar, with one server.
What was the name of the service?Holy Communion
How full was the building?
Celebrant, server, two others and your Mystery Worshipper.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
I arrived early enough to look round the churchyard and the old hall ruins. As I entered the already open church, I spotted the vicar walking down the path. He welcomed me, gave me the service booklet and information sheet, and asked if I was on holiday and staying at the hotel. He then escorted me to the choir stalls, which he said were used when the congregation was small, as tends to be the case at the early service.
Was your pew comfortable?
A wooden choir stall with needlepoint covering to mitigate its hardness. Spacious enough to sit straight, and perfectly adequate for this short service.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The other two present were quiet and prayerful. My pew mate, an elderly lady, took the trouble to show me where in the booklet the service began.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. The grace, mercy and peace of God our Father and of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Service book; modern rite.
What musical instruments were played?
No music at this service, though they have hymns at the 11.00 service. There were copies of Celebration Hymnal by the door.
Did anything distract you?
The problem with these early services is trying to be discreet about taking notes! The celebrant was directing his words to us, and it seemed only polite to reciprocate with our attention. Mine did wander a bit as I took in details of monuments, harvest decorations, and one or two floral arrangements that were rather past their best.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
This was the full spoken service, briskly reverent, and, I think, "high", if the vestments and number of genuflections were anything to go by.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
6 – A clear delivery. The vicar spoke from prepared notes. One of the examples he used to illustrate his point was that visitors to the church sometimes complain that they are ignored, when in fact it is they who ignore the congregation! (He apologised to me for the illustration, but I believe him when he said that he had pre-planned the example.)
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The vicar began with a reference to the song "Rhythm of Life", which he wrongly ascribed to the musical Cabaret instead of Sweet Charity. He approved of the song title as being appropriate to the harvest theme and the rhythm of the seasons, with their appropriate products of the earth. He went on to make the point that we have to get to give!
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The service was conducted with full attention and intention; it really meant something. And the congregation was included in the event.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
It's nice to be included, but I did feel slightly pinpointed at times, especially as I would have preferred to be unobtrusive. This is mission impossible under such conditions. Also, what to do with the Mystery Worshipper calling card? I ended up pinning it to the notice board, partially hidden under another paper.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
The lady in my pew said how nice it was to have me there. The vicar also came up and chatted, saying he hoped it hadn't been too much of a culture shock! He was able to tell me a bit about the church and parish and the changing character of the congregation. This was very friendly.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
None at this service.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – I liked the intimacy of this little church. The style of the service was familiar to me from my traditional Roman Catholic childhood. It was interesting to meet it here.
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 peaceful surroundings. It seemed to epitomise the unspoilt tranquility of this rural corner.