St Mary Magdalen, Brighton (Exterior)

St Mary Magdalen, Brighton, England


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Mary Magdalen
Location: Brighton, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 21 June 2015, 10:30am

The building

This is the second church to be built for the Roman Catholic community of Brighton and Hove, the first being St John the Baptist, Kemptown. It dates from 1861-1864 and is the work of the 19th century English architect Gilbert R. Blount, known for his many Catholic churches. It is in the Early English Decorated Gothic style and is of red brick, with a tapered tower topped by a spire. The porch and entrance door are also in the tower. The stone dressings are a riot of high Victorian naturalism. Although not mentioned in the pew leaflet, there has clearly been an extensive and sensitive restoration programme of the sanctuary and church (with some work still ongoing); the charming and functional (yet decorative) metal wall-lighting sconces are of particular note. Located in the same block as the church are the school and presbytery.

The church

Brighton is within the Diocese of Arundel and Brighton, which this year celebrates its golden jubilee and the recent installation of its fifth bishop (the fourth had to resign after a scandal). St Marys may even acquire its own parish saint: the Venerable Mother Riccarda (elevated in July 2012), a Bridgettine sister (known as the "hot cross bun nuns" because of their distinctive head gear) who did much to shelter Jews in Rome during the Nazi onslaught; she was baptised at St Marys.

The neighborhood

Brighton is a cosmopolitan city on the south coast of England, previously the haunt of the Prince Regent (1811-1820, who became King George IV). There are many elegant Regency (Georgian) and Victorian buildings. Like many seaside towns in the UK, it is a little rough around the edges. St Marys is to be found on Upper North Street in the Montpelier area, developed after the arrival of the railway in the 1840s. The area is still home to some very elegant and fashionable buildings of white stucco and Regency fronts. Lovely views of the sea beyond.

The cast

The Revd Ray Blake, parish priest.

What was the name of the service?

Sung Parish Mass

How full was the building?

When I arrived 10 minutes before the service, there was a small choir rehearsing, a server busy crossing and re-crossing the sanctuary (with a graceful genuflection each time), and about 20 faithful in the pews. That number had perhaps doubled when the sanctuary bell sounded for the start of mass. Numbers increased throughout the service to about 100 by communion, but we were only about half that number at the end of the mass.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

No. There were no greeters. If they ever had a ministry of welcome, it must have been suppressed along with other parish organisations (the pew bulletin said nothing about parish activities, and the Parish Life tab on their website brings up a placeholder with buttons to share that dismal fact via various social media). There was a woman harrumphing as she liberated the hymn books and randomly placed them next to a plastic box containing other bits of paper, which seemed all rather lost among all the boxes containing large votive lamps. It wasnt until I read the pew leaflet that I saw these candles could be sponsored to burn during the 40 hours devotion being held in honour of the dioceses jubilee.

Was your pew comfortable?

Comfortable, but in a penitential Victorian sort of way. The priest mentioned that parishioners should bring cushions if they wanted to participate in the 40 hours devotion. I see why.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

I couldnt put my finger on it at the time, but on reflection there seemed to be a significant lack of joy in the place.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

The introit for the day, chanted in English to the plainchant setting: "The Lord is the strength of his people, and the guardian of salvation for his anointed" (Psalm 28:8).

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The Celebrational Hymnal for Everyone (with supplement). There was also a nicely printed leaflet giving the propers for the day, including printed music for the introit and gradual and a pew leaflet containing many extracts from the Popes latest encyclical Laudato si but not much news of any activity in the parish, save for the devotion extravaganza.

What musical instruments were played?

An organ accompanying a choir, who sang the Gregorian Missa de Angelis and Credo III plus two hymns (in unison) in an accomplished way. They also sang two unidentified motets in harmony. The music was a welcome relief from other aspects of the service.

Did anything distract you?

The priest wore a maniple! While most clergy no longer vest in a maniple at mass (its use was made optional in 1967 but it was never abrogated), Father's decision to do so reminded me of the Latin vesting prayer said when donning it: "Merear, Domine, portare manipulum fletus et doloris ..." (O Lord, may I be worthy to bear the cloth of weeping and sorrow ...).

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

Mass was celebrated ad orientem, with lots of servers and many of the ritual signs more usually associated with the Latin mass. Indeed, St Mary Magdalen's is noted for its Latin mass celebrated on Fridays, at one mass each Sunday, and on feast days and solemnities. But someone should have checked the lectionary, which was still marked for the previous week's reading. The priest even started to read the "wrong"' gospel and could be heard hissing as he quickly turned to the right page.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

12 minutes.

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

4 – Father Blake reminded me of those priests of yesteryear who, week after week, would use their sermons as the perfect platform from which to scold and frighten their flock rather than to encourage them. St Francis had it right when he said, "Nothing is so strong as gentleness."

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Have you signed up yet to pray before the Blessed Sacrament during our upcoming 40 hours devotion? There's no reason to be afraid of silence. You'll be one with the Lord.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The church has been beautifully restored to conform the excesses of post Vatican II fervour to the good taste of architect Gilbert R. Blount. And it was heavenly to hear plainchant well sung.

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

Wouldn't you know it, but the obligatory mobile phone went off just at the wrong moment! Upon hearing it, the priest literally turned on his heel and hissed, "Switch it off!" at the culprit. "Or better yet, drop it in a bucket of water!" Yes, it should have been switched to silent before mass. But the miscreant was so taken aback that she left the church.

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

Two other visitors told me how lovely it was to have a member of the congregation singing, and why didnt I sing in the choir? But not a word from any regular parishioner. Perhaps they were afraid of being told off again by Father. At any rate, most had fled. Even Father was absent I believe he may have been hearing confessions.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

It was announced that coffee would be "in the hall", but I didnt know where that was and there was no one around to ask. I spotted a door that may have led to the hall, but I decided instead to go have a look at the nearby high Victorian Anglican church.

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

3 – This is very unlikely to become my regular worship destination. Pity, as it is a pretty church, with some decent music. Even granted that the liturgy was a little pedantic, it was certainly preferable to the sloppiness so frequently encountered.

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

Sadly no. It felt dogmatic and tight, without the freedom of love so often spoken of in the gospels. There seemed to be little inward charity. I felt as if mass had been "done to" me rather than having engaged me. I came out feeling told off for not having done things I had no notion I should have been doing. I would have spent the time more profitably had I simply meditated in silence for the hour or so.

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

The restored lighting fixtures.

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