St Mary's, Clapham, London, England

St Mary's, Clapham, London


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Mystery Worshipper: Robertus Liverpolitanae
Church: St Mary's
Location: Clapham, London
Date of visit: Sunday, 26 November 2006, 12:00pm

The building

This is a small neo-Gothic church with attached monastery, dating from the mid 19th century, designed by the noted Gothic Revival architect W.W. Wardell. His friend A.W.N. Pugin designed the church plate, of such outstanding magnificence that it's now in the British Museum. The interior can only be described as a riot of colour.

The church

The Irish community, for whom the church was originally built, is still strong in the area, but is now supplemented by, among others, Polish, Portuguese, Nigerian and Sri Lankan communities. The parish seems to have a fair number of activities going on.

The neighborhood

The church is close to Clapham Common, an area with a reputation for the trendy and upwardly mobile. Local housing seems divided between expensive middle class areas and local authority estates. The congregation leaned strongly toward the latter.

The cast

I asked two parishoners for the name of the celebrant and got two different answers. The church website was of no help – it has a photo only of the parish priest. The Redemptorist community in residence numbers about half a dozen priests, so it's not possible to work out who it was via the process of elimination. There were also a cantor, one altar server and two lay readers.

What was the name of the service?


How full was the building?

Standing room only. The nave was full and overflowed into the side chapels. Between 150 and 200 people.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

There were two ladies outside the church's porch handing out newsletters. They managed to hand one to me without saying hello, giving a smile, looking in my direction, or indeed interrupting their conversation. A few people in my pew gave me a smile. At the peace ceremony people gave enthusiastic handshakes.

Was your pew comfortable?

It was OK. A little narrow to sit comfortably for very long, but plenty of space for kneeling.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

I arrived about 10 minutes before the service began and it was already busy. The Lady chapel did good business in supplicants and votive candles. There was quite a lot of talking, but this didn't strike me as particularly irreverent, just a lively parish.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirt. Amen."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Litugical Hymns Old and New. There were no missals or service sheets, so it wasn't possible to follow the proper of the mass.

What musical instruments were played?

An organ, generally well played, particularly for Bach's Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring during communion. A cantor led the singing. Near the cantor sat a group of people who may or may not have been the choir.

Did anything distract you?

The church's Puginesque decor was pleasant to look at when things dragged. Wailing children (see under sermon) were a distraction, as were latecomers. The gloria sung by the cantor, with a refrain for the congregation, sounded uncannily like a certain very bawdy rugby song I know; it was mildly disconcerting to hear it in this context. The church is practically next door to Clapham Common tube station, and tube trains could be heard rattling below regularly throughout the mass.

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

Reverentially chaotic probably describes it best. After the sermon, there was a short ceremony which the celebrant informed us should have taken place earlier in the service. Two families each brought a child forward to be blessed and then sat down again. It certainly wasn't a baptism – perhaps a modern version of the churching of women. I've no idea. After this, things went awry. The celebrant got things muddled during the offertory, but seemed to have recovered himself by the begining of the eucharistic prayer. Three lay people assisted in distributing holy communion. Good singing (for Catholics!).

Exactly how long was the sermon?

10 minutes.

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

6 – Really I should give 10 for perseverance! The babies in the congregation seemed to have formed an unholy alliance to wail throughout the sermon. I don't mean crying or screaming, I mean wailing on a Jeremiahan scale – I think some of those babies were teething in preparation for mighty gnashing of teeth. As one baby was pacified, another would start. Both before and after the sermon the babies were relatively quiet. Preaching in these circumstances can only be described as heroic!

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The sermon was based on the day's gospel (John 18:33-37). It centred on Pilate's questions: "Are you the king of the Jews?" and "What is truth?" When faced with moral and ethical problems we, like Pilate, must ask: "What is truth?" Pilate was baffled by Jesus's answers. We are often confused trying to understand Jesus's teachings. If we accept Christ as our king, the centre of our universe, we will be able to discern the answers to our problems.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

I hope heaven is this chaotic. I do really! The whole service was soaked in an atmosphere of rough and ready, but nonetheless genuine, piety. Not everyone's cup of tea I'm sure, but I liked it.

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

The greeters! According to the notice-board there is a rota of greeters for each of the four Sunday masses, so the parish must consider this an important job. The two ladies on this Sunday didn't give a good first impression of the church. Then, too, there were far too many latecomers. This mass started at midday, by which time the streets of Clapham had been well aired. No real excuse for being late. Also, the mix-up at the offertory may have given liurgists of a delicate nature a fit of the vapours; however, these were genuine mistakes rather than ministerial tinkerings so I can't criticise very harshly. Finally, the notices read at the end of mass were confusing and failed to expand on the information in the newsletter.

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

It's frightfully difficult to look lost in a crowd of 200 people. Not surprisingly, given the throng, nobody spotted me as a stranger. I hung around at the back of church, in the porch and in the little courtyard in front of the church, but nobody said anything to me. I tried to have a word with a priest (not the celebrant) who was in the courtyard, but I couldn't get near him, so I gave up.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

None offered, which was a pity as I should have liked the opportunity to talk to some parishioners and clergy.

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

7 – As it happens, this church isn't that far from where I live, so I probably will be back. I noticed that they are appealing for people to join a choir to sing over the Christmas period. I am quite tempted to go along and see what happens.

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

Oh yes!

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

The general air of chaos and the wailing babies.

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