Mystery Worshipper: Sophiology
Church: St Mary & St John
Location: Oxford, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 21 June 2009, 8:00am
The church's foundation stone was laid in 1875. The building is of Charlbury stone and is in the Decorated style. In most respects it seems an unexceptional large late Victorian church. However, its churchyard is large and rather more notable than the building. Indeed the churchyard has its own website, documenting its history and its reclamation from nature and from drug dealers in the last ten years. It is now strikingly beautiful, with wildflowers and a labyrinth. A sign invites passerby to enter for reflection and prayer, or simply to enjoy nature.
The church's first vicar was the Revd Richard Meux Benson, who in 1866, along with two other priests, founded the Society of St John the Evangelist (better known as the Cowley Fathers), the first Anglican religious community of men to be formed since the Reformation. Father Benson turned his attention to the social and pastoral needs of East Oxford, establishing schools and adult education programs as well as St John's Hospital, which still shares a site with the church. Father Benson died in 1915 and was buried in the churchyard beneath a memorial to the Cowley Fathers. The church celebrates said and sung eucharists each Sunday, plus a reflective eucharist ("in simple, reflective style, with meditative prayers") on Sunday evenings. Morning prayer and the eucharist are held during the week, with Noah's Ark (a eucharist for pre-schoolers and their carers) on Wednesdays.
Cowley Road is across the river from most of Oxford University and down the hill from most of Oxford Brookes University. Nonetheless it is a very lively area, with a significant immigrant community and quite a few students living out. It's full of restaurants and little shops. Once the area had a bad reputation but it's been gentrifying steadily for at least the past ten years. A Costa Coffee and a Subway recently moved in.
The priest's name was not given, but he may have been the Revd Adam Romanis, vicar.
What was the name of the service?Said Eucharist
How full was the building?
The main church was empty and quiet and dark, with only one candle burning at the altar. The eucharist itself was held in a small side chapel. There was the priest, a gentleman, a lady and myself. Although it was a small chapel, three worshippers left it considerably less than full.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
After I took my seat at the back of the chapel, the gentleman turned around to hand me his copy of the Common Worship booklet, then got up to fetch himself another one. Nothing was said but I definitely felt welcomed and looked after.
Was your pew comfortable?
The seating was individual wooden (not folding) chairs. Comfortable enough, especially given that the service was only 35 minutes long.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Before the service started there was complete and total silence. I have rarely been in a church that was so quiet, except when I've had a key and let myself in. It was really refreshing to have a change from the usual buzz of people greeting one another. My presence was acknowledged, just not in words. It was an air of silent expectancy.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Common Worship, Order One (traditional language).
What musical instruments were played?
No instruments, no hymns, no chanting. A simple said eucharist.
Did anything distract you?
Given the silence and the small number of worshippers, there were few distractions. While I was standing at the rail for the eucharistic prayer, my attention was briefly caught by leaves outside waving in the sunlight, glimpsed through a small stained glass window. I wouldn't call this a distraction, though. More a welcome detail.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was definitely an Anglo-Catholic service, with frequent and non-perfunctory genuflections from the priest. He crossed himself in a way that I tend to associate with Russian Orthodoxy: widely rather than narrowly. I would characterise the style as formal rather than relaxed, but it was nonetheless very sincere. Despite the tiny congregation, everything was done just as seriously as it would have been in a large cathedral service. The gospel reading was so vivid and well done that I imagined it as an afternoon play on Radio Four.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Most of all I was struck by the silence and the sincerity. There was a juxtaposition between the simplicity of the setting and the formality of the worship that really highlighted both of them for me.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Only my own self-consciousness at how very obvious my presence was. My failure to bring in a kneeler from the main church possibly made prayers a little less comfortable than they should have been, however.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Immediately after the service finished, the priest whisked out of the chapel. I looked hopefully at the other two worshippers and they smiled at me, but we filed out of the chapel in silence. It turned out that the priest was standing in the porch of the church to greet us as we left. As he was talking with the lady, I had a short chat with the gentleman, who asked me where I was from and talked to me about his family in America (my country of origin). Then the priest greeted me and we talked for a little while after the other two worshippers had left. He gave me a parish bulletin and asked me about my studies. We talked a little about the history of the church and churchyard. "I have no idea how Father Benson had the time to do all that he did," he admitted. He said that he was glad to have me there and hoped to see me again. (Sadly I failed to get his name, though.)
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
No coffee hour. There is one after the main Sunday service at 11am.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – While I hadn't expected to feel this way, I am seriously considering a return to the 8am service. It appealed to me quite a bit... short and simple without being perfunctory or pro forma.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
It did. A better illustration of the passage "wherever two or three of you are gathered in my name" could not be imagined. It proves that numbers and noise are not required for moving worship experience.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The intimacy of the setting and the sincerity of the worship. And leaves and sunlight seen through a stained glass window.