Mystery Worshipper: Pax Britannica
Church: St Mary's Bourne Street
Location: Belgravia, London
Date of visit: Sunday, 7 May 2006, 11:00am
St Mary's is a comparatively humble Victorian red brick barn, subsequently tastefully extended, but which has over the years been filled to the brim with glittering treasures ("infinite riches in a little room" as the poetic title of one guidebook has it.) As one enters through a modest (and even awkward) doorway, slightly off the street, which opens into an obscure corner of the building, one experiences an intensely pleasant theatrical moment upon discovering the interior. Standing in a large sanctuary raised up on many marble steps, the high altar and its baroque reredos and soaring candlesticks attract attention all a gleaming mass of gold and silver against the brown brick and dark panelling.
The church was founded for the working and servant classes of the district, and has evolved with the social changes in that part of Belgravia. It now attracts a more prosperous congregation, and due to the church's staunch commitment to Anglo-Catholic worship, it also draws an eclectic group of all types from far afield. As all are a rather dressy crowd, it is not easy to tell the more toney members of the congregation from the more humble.
The modest houses in the parish are now some of the most expensive and desirable in central London, but their size means that many remain as small houses rather than being turned into more anonymous flats. As a result, the immediate area remains pleasantly residential and low-rise. The grander (and enormous) houses of Eaton Square are round the corner, as are the salubrious shopping districts of Sloane Square (the Peter Jones department store) and the busy start of the ever-fashionable King's Road, but all that seems a world away.
The Most Revd and Rt Hon. Rowan Douglas Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, celebrant and preacher, assisted by an 18-strong host of glitteringly-attired assistants, ministers and servers, led by the parish priest, the Revd Alasdair Coles.
What was the name of the service?Pontifical High Mass, Procession of Our Lady and Benediction.
How full was the building?
Almost full so about 200. After the lengthy outdoor procession following mass, which attracted quite a crowd of onlookers in the Sunday sunshine, we returned to the church with a significantly different and much increased crowd than we had left with. Among these were a posse of Orthodox priests, attendants and servers, whose cloth-of-gold robes and tall black stovepipe hats nicely mirrored His Grace's raiment and that of the church clergy in their smart black birettas.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
I got a reserved smile from the woman who handed me a leaflet at the entrance. In the seats, there was some earnest debate among my neighbours as to whether the procession would venture outdoors (as indeed it did). The inevitable exchange of peace was brisk and businesslike but friendly a firm English handshake.
Was your pew comfortable?
Traditional wooden seats, but rather hard, narrow, and very close together (side to side and front to back), probably packed in to accommodate as many as possible in a smallish building.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The church filled up early and quickly, but relatively quietly although a couple of large and formidable ladies in front of me pursued intense chatter in low voices. I was much too intimidated to ask them to shush.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
The entire cast entered the church at 11.00 on the dot and went in silence to the main door to receive the Archbishop. As His Grace entered the building, the choir sang an antiphon in his honour: Sacerdos et pontifex to the refined music of Giovanni Gabrieli.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
A full and neatly produced leaflet containing the readings, propers, prayer lists, details of music, notes on the service, and other instructions. Volumes of the New English Hymnal for the three hymns (excluding the procession), and slightly scruffy booklets with the words of the service, were in the seats. It was good to see the Book of Common Prayer there also for other services no doubt.
What musical instruments were played?
A rather splendid-looking and expertly played but noisy organ sprawled across the west gallery. It had just been rebuilt and the opening recital had been the previous evening. The highlight was, though, the magnificent small professional choir of men and women with perfectly attuned voices for the building, augmented on this occasion with violins. A Haydn Missa Brevis, performed with great style and élan (the sopranos soaring away with the violins) alternated with the authentic plainchant propers nicely intoned by the men and tastefully accompanied. The congregation then raised the roof by heartily joining in the hymns, which whizzed along at a cracking pace.
Did anything distract you?
The church sits over an underground railway line, and a rumble was apparent every four minutes. But after an initial distraction, this added yet a further delightful incongruity to the event.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Upper lips have never been stiffer! Dauntingly complex worship with numerous participants, appropriate to the most formal liturgy celebrated by a bishop, was insouciantly and utterly unselfconsciously carried out with the appropriately slightly bored expression of the true hierophant. No irritating pauses or hesitations. A dignified and elaborate ritual, with incense, bells, gold, silver, sumptuous vestments, and lots of lace. One of the more exotic officials in the sanctuary was dressed in a full legal-style wig, lace jabot, dress coat, breeches, and buckled shoes: this curious individual even administered a chalice during Holy Communion at a side altar a bizarre sight, though I suspected that only I thought it so. Mass was followed by an outdoor procession of a statue of Our Lady round the streets of the parish. An elaborate canopy with gilded barley-sugar poles was held over the Archbishop by four distinguished-looking gentlemen in morning coats and white gloves. On our return to the church, the Archbishop gave Benediction (in Latin!) with the Blessed Sacrament in a large monstrance.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 – As one might have hoped, the Archbishop preached expertly, without notes and in fully formed and carefully crafted sentences. Fortunately, St Mary's neither needs nor has a microphone system, and the Archbishop's conversational, even intimate, yet authoritative style carried through the building. Although his sermon was lengthy and formidably complex and many-threaded, it was rightly listened to with rapt attention.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The Archbishop took as his text John 16:16 "A little while, and ye shall not see me: and again, a little while, and ye shall see me, because I go to the Father." The deeper perception of John, compared with the initial amazement of Peter on his reaching the empty tomb, leads into our way of seeing God. The disciples saw Our Lord in the flesh on earth, but with the eventual full understanding of the truth that they would enjoy. Our destiny is to live next to the heart of the Father. We think of heaven as where we see God but rather, it is where God sees us and we are forever in his view. Our progress there will not be easy, and we must expect times of doubt and discouragement. And as John was received by Our Lady at the foot of the Cross, so may we be received and prayed for by her.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The sight of the Archbishop of Canterbury giving Benediction would have thrilled many. During communion, the choir sang Mozart's well-worn Ave Verum Corpus, which, though heard a thousand times, has never to this Mystery Worshipper's ears sounded so deliciously fresh or intense. A revelation.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
During the outdoor procession, which extended for several blocks, we sang only two hymns over and over and over again! Not only did they get rather dull with repetition, but the printed tune did not seem to be the one performed. In the end, we in the rear of the procession made up our own variant tune.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
A stern instruction in the booklet admonished all to proceed promptly after mass to the school over the road for drinks. I meekly obeyed. As I entered the school hall, a woman pressed a glass of champagne into my hand. After a few minutes of hanging around on the edge of the fairly uproarious mêlée, I was approached by one of the congregation who came up and introduced himself and dragged me off to meet all his friends.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Good champagne in a plastic container plus other drinks that I glimpsed but, alas, failed to record in my enthusiasm for bubbly after a long and warm liturgy.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
10 – With its grand ceremonies, wonderful music, intelligent preaching, friendly and jolly crowd, and city-centre location, St Mary's must be the Mecca of Catholic worship in the Church of England. Its decades of tradition seem here to be a living presence rather than a dead hand. I'm on the plane!
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Completely and, for once, glad to be a member of the Church of England. For a brief couple of hours the absurdities and contradictions of our church, as well as the culs de sac it has been distracted into during the past dozen years, were a million miles away. And here in our midst, leading our worship, and seemingly totally at home, was our primate himself.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The glass of chilled champagne being thrust into my hand after a long hot grand Sunday mass.