St Mary-at-the-Elms, Ipswich, England


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Mary-at-the-Elms
Location: Ipswich, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 31 May 2020, 10:45am

The building

A delightful mediaeval building, consisting of tower, nave, chancel, and north aisle, set in a pleasant churchyard. The interior was cleaned and restored some years ago, after a fire, and is light and welcoming. However, today’s parish mass was held in the adjacent vicarage garden, on a small table, but with all the trimmings – including the Paschal candle.

The church

This is one of several surviving mediaeval churches in Ipswich, some of which are now in secular use. St Mary’s – commonly referred to simply as ‘The Elms’ – has a very small resident parish population, and a ‘gathered’ congregation on Sundays, but has reinvented itself as an oasis of peace, usually open every day for mass and private prayer. It is one of two Anglo-Catholic churches in the town, and once had a Marian shrine nearby (Our Lady of Grace). In recent times, this shrine (destroyed at the Reformation) has been restored within the church, with a beautiful modern wooden image.

The neighborhood

Downtown Ipswich is much like the centre of any other fair-sized English town! The immediate neighbourhood consists largely of offices (the annual carol service is held during a weekday lunchtime just before Christmas), and there is a growing ministry to those working in the area. As well as the church, there is an ancient cottage in the grounds, thought to be the oldest inhabited building in the town. Ipswich was once one of England’s busiest ports, though the dockland area is now being regenerated in the customary vibrant and exciting manner!

The cast

The parish priest presided, and the homily (pre-recorded) was preached by a retired priest. Pre-recorded hymns, and other musical parts of the mass, were played on a piano, with a cantor singing solo (his voice reminded me of that of the late entertainer and musician Donald Swann).

What was the name of the service?

Parish Mass for the Feast of Pentecost.

How full was the building?

Just the priest, though when I watched the service on Facebook some hours after it concluded, there had been 191 views.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Not personally, but the priest made a real effort to welcome all those joining him online.

Was your pew comfortable?

My dining-table chair (I only have the one). It suffices.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

There was a full 10 minutes of reflective pre-recorded organ music before the first hymn.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

‘The love of God has been poured into our hearts by his Spirit living in us.’

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The priest had a folder with all the words – I understand the order of service was available online via the parish website, which, apart from the Facebook page, wouldn’t open for me! The mass was a straightforward Church of England Common Worship Order One, with the permitted Catholic additions and variations.

What musical instruments were played?

Pre-recorded organ music at beginning and end, and piano during the service, but the priest sang the gospel alleluia, and the Sanctus/Benedictus a cappella.

Did anything distract you?

The camera was positioned vertically in portrait mode, rather than horizontally in landscape mode. Thus, only the centre third of the screen contained the actual video – leaving blank black bits to left and to right! This made it a little difficult to follow visually, and the priest had to dodge off-screen from time to time to click on the next piece of music, or whatever. Oh, and there were the usual emergency vehicle sirens in the background from time to time.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

Full on Anglo-Catholic, with bells and smells – no swinging of a thurible, but incense was burnt in a small standing censer all through the mass – a nice breeze wafting clouds of smoke across the garden, and the screen! The priest was vested in alb, stole, maniple, chasuble, and biretta. The setting led to some informality, so it wasn’t stiff, but neither was it irreverent.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

6 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

6 — I’d probably give him a higher mark if I could have heard him more clearly, but he delivered his message simply.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The Holy Spirit is sometimes known as the ‘Comforter’, which can be misleadingly thought of as something cosy. The word really means ‘Advocate’ – the highest adviser to a king, and therefore the Holy Spirit is our assurance that God hears our prayers. But to ‘comfort’ can also mean to ‘encourage’ – to be strengthened to achieve what we are capable of doing, even though we may not realise what that is. We, in our turn, can encourage others in God’s service.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

Well, it was a delightful and imaginative setting for the service, and it was lovely to take part in a proper Anglican service, rather than use (illicitly) the Roman mass.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

The blank bits of the screen. And, as always with ‘virtual’ services, the sad feeling that this is the best that can be done, for a time, at least.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

The priest addressed himself to those watching, reminding us that this was the ‘birthday of the Church’, and to make sure we had something of a birthday celebration at lunch.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

I watched this service much later in the day, so a glass of red wine was had.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

8 — I’d like to attend a service in the church proper – it really is a little gem.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

Yes, on the whole.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

The clouds of incense drifting across the garden on a stiff breeze!

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