St Matthew’s, Borstal, Rochester, England


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Matthew’s
Location: Borstal, Rochester, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 13 June 2021, 10:30am

The building

A small stone-built church, dating from 1879, consisting of nave and chancel (with vestries) and a small bell-cote. The chancel is divided from the nave by a light wooden screen, and there are some handsome choir stalls – now, alas, little used. A small ‘Church Room’ with kitchenette and WCs was added onto the west end of the nave some years ago. Entrance porch, nave, and Church Room are all on the level, and easily accessible for those of us with limited mobility. A neat nave altar and a lectern have been set up in front of the chancel screen, with matching communion rails (out of use at present, of course).

The church

The parish is currently in interregnum, though a new priest-in-charge (the vicar of a neighbouring church) is due to start soon. St Matthew's forms part of a three-parish cluster to which all the Anglican churches of Rochester belong. There was once a fine choral tradition here, but this has declined in recent years, and has now ceased altogether due to the pandemic. On the plus side, there is a flourishing Messy Church, albeit suspended until September.

The neighborhood

The Borstal area is now a residential suburb of Rochester, tailing off abruptly into open countryside at the point where the M2 motorway and the Eurotunnel rail link cross the river Medway. A few streets of Victorian terraced houses date back to the time when at least two cement works were active hereabouts – all long-closed. Within the parish are some of the Rochester prison establishments, including the Young Offenders Institution – yes, the term ‘Borstal’ for such places comes from this village, where the first such reformatory was set up in 1902. The ‘village’ (as it is still known locally) has a number of shops, a pharmacy, a GP surgery, a neat village hall, a Baptist chapel, and a pub – both the latter now happily open again!

The cast

A visiting priest celebrated the eucharist and preached. One of the churchwardens read the Old Testament lesson and the gospel, and also led the intercessions. A visiting organist provided prelude, music during communion, and a postlude.

What was the name of the service?

Parish Communion for the Second Sunday after Trinity.

How full was the building?

Twenty-three adults (mostly elderly) and one toddler. The usual turnout here is about 35, but the young families are still largely missing, as in many churches. The normal congregation reflects the demographics of the parish – older people, young families, but not many of the in-betweens!

Did anyone welcome you personally?

A cheerful ‘Good morning’ from behind a mask – this from several people, including the churchwardens.

Was your pew comfortable?

Rather uncomfortable Victorian pitch-pine pew, typical of the period. I would have sat me on a hassock, but they are not being used at present, for reasons of hygiene, I suppose.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Some chatting and visiting as people arrived (rather at the last minute, some of them), but this ceased when the organist struck up a prelude.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

‘In the name of the Father ...’ etc., which the priest then had to repeat, as his neck-mic wasn't on.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

A home-made service booklet – Common Worship Order One – with a notice leaflet. These were not given out, but placed (two of each) in those pews not roped off.

What musical instruments were played?

Just the organ, which I understand is rather a good one – it certainly sounded well.

Did anything distract you?

Not a distraction, exactly, but I did find the priest's rather slow speech a tad awkward, because everyone else said their bits of the service as the same speed. It was rather like hearing a YouTube video at 0.75 instead of 1.

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

A straightforward spoken C of E eucharist, with no waffle or frills. The priest wore cassock-alb and stole, although I believe the previous incumbent usually wore a chasuble as well. Still, it was a very hot day, and the simple vesture matched the minimalist liturgy.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

10 minutes, I think (I don't wear a watch or carry a mobile phone, and neither is there a clock in the church).

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

7 — A good sermon – I listened to the whole of it! – but the priest did speak a bit slowly (see above).

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The two readings (the choosing and anointing of David, and the parable of the mustard seed) remind us that God does not see things as we do, looking at the outward appearance, but instead he looks at our inner selves – our hearts. Just as David was not the strongest or most handsome of Jesse's sons, and just as the mustard bush is not actually a particularly handsome shrub, so we – and he included himself in this! – are by no means necessarily the finest specimens of humankind. Nevertheless, we are the material with which the Kingdom of Heaven is being built.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

Well, I hadn't been to church since last October, so it was quite moving to be with God's people once more, and to receive the Sacrament.

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

Nothing worthy of the deepest depths of the nether regions, but Oh! How I miss congregational singing! Wearing a face-mask for nearly an hour was a bit of a bind, but yes, I know it's for other people's benefit.

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

Under current Covid-19 restrictions, people are asked not to linger chatting inside (or outside) the church – but still, some did so anyway, and included me in the general ‘How are you?’ and ‘Bye for now!’ The priest sensibly stood outside the church to speak to everyone as they passed him.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Not applicable at present, but there is usually a cuppa in the Church Room – with cake, I'm told.

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

8 — This is actually my local church – I live in the parish – so may well visit again from time to time (especially once singing is permitted!).

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

I suppose so, although it saddens me to think that we are so few in number these days.

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

The uncomfy pew!

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