St Matthew's, Northampton, England

St Matthew's, Northampton, England


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Mystery Worshipper: Zerubbabel
Church: St Matthew's
Location: Northampton, England
Date of visit: Monday, 21 September 2009, 7:30pm

The building

In the words of John Betjeman: "When I came into this church for the first time ... I wanted to go down on my knees ... and thank God for the beauty which man has made to the glory of God in St Matthew's." The church was built in 1893 in the French Gothic style, on land donated by a local brewing magnate (perhaps to save him from his sins – although he died before the church was completed). The interior is a strange mix of high church and Starship Enterprise. The high altar and reredos are of moulded polished alabaster. There are some notable works of art, including a Madonna and Child by the famed 20th century modernist sculptor Henry Moore, and a nine-foot-high surrealist Crucifixion in oils by Graham Sutherland, hailed as the most important post-World War II painter in England. Benjamin Britten's cantata Rejoice in the Lamb was commissioned for the 50th anniversary of the consecration of St Matthew's.

The church

St Matthew's approach to the liturgy is, quoting from their website, "firmly rooted within Anglicanism but with a definite Catholic expression." But they are not merely (again quoting from their website) "a bolt-hole for pietistic liturgical escapism." Indeed, everything about the place suggests a thriving community at work, from the massive assortment of paraphernalia and booklets at the entrance to a children's play area on the north side. They conduct a special outreach to the lonely, infirm and housebound. They are enthusiastic supporters of the arts. Youth programs are plentiful, including Scouts and a Mums and Tots group.

The neighborhood

Northampton is a large market town in the East Midlands about 70 miles northwest of London. Formerly a major leather and shoemaking centre, only the high-end firm of Church's survives, known to well-dressed men worldwide as makers of quality footwear. St Matthew's is situated in a leafy suburb of the town, with large Edwardian houses to one side and attractive Victorian terraces to the other. Opposite the church is a row of shops – I wonder if there is another church anywhere in England with as many takeaway and kebab shops on its doorstep.

The cast

The Revd Nicholas Setterfield, vicar, presided. The Revd Canon Martin Warner, canon treasurer of St Paul's Cathedral, London, was the preacher.

What was the name of the service?

Patronal Festival Sung Mass and Dedication of the St Matthew Sculpture

How full was the building?

About 90 or so in the congregation, but it looked reasonably full at that.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

There was a lady who was handing out a beautifully prepared order of service. Unfortunately she seemed deep in conversation with someone else, so I had to let out a stage cough to attract her attention. She simply handed me the booklet whilst carrying on with her conversation. Another lady, who was handing out a different sheet, was much more welcoming.

Was your pew comfortable?

Very comfortable, though we stood for the great majority of the service.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

A murmur of quiet chatter and the sound of the bells playing the tunes of the hymns that were about to be sung in the service. Very classy.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Let us proceed in peace" (though the order of service had "Let us go forth in peace" – the only discrepancy in an otherwise splendid booklet). Then the organ erupted into a mighty introduction to the first hymn, a banner was raised aloft, and a large party began the great procession.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

A special order of service for the day and a loose sheet with some of the new music. The order of service was very much like a script – every single word was printed (apart from four minutes of thank-yous at the beginning of the service and another three minutes of thank-yous at the end – most intrusive), and included indications of who was to do what such as All, Choir, Presider, Deacon, Reader, Leader, CC1 and CC2 (Concelebrant 1 and Concelebrant 2). It was like being in O-level English Literature class again, everyone with their heads down in their copies whilst teacher read things out from the front.

What musical instruments were played?

A very fine organ dating from 1895, an opus of the Walker firm of London. The pipes sit an an angle in their chambers so that they may speak not only across the choir but also down the nave. The organ was overhauled in 1971 and fully restored in 2006 by the Harrison & Harrison firm of Durham. It was played (we discovered in the second set of thank-yous) by the organist of Peterborough Cathedral.

Did anything distract you?

The servers, who had been waiting in the Lady chapel, moved elsewhere just before the service began. They did this by passing the high altar, turning their backs to it, and bowing to the nave altar. The very ornate high altar was laden with candles, and by contrast the nave altar looked like an Ikea kitchen unit and was barely visible. So to us in the pews, it looked like the servers were bowing to us! Very, very odd. There were also five very noise aeroplanes that passed overhead, one just as the peace was being exchanged!

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

Stiff but fluid and high church. Modern language with odd bits extracted from Rome, such as the Orate Fratres. All mashed together with the modern (a voice that teaches us the secrets of holiness, a breeze that strengthens and refreshes, a fire that sears our hearts in love).

Exactly how long was the sermon?

17 minutes.

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

5 – A ... very ... mannered ... delivery ... wringing every ounce of meaning out of each ... and ... every ... word – ideal, I guess, for the very live acoustics of St Paul's Cathedral.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

He spoke of how art can be used in the service of the gospel, referring to the new sculpture that was being dedicated as well as to the fine art works already in place. He also talked about the importance of the eucharist and the character of Matthew as apostle and evangelist.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The whole liturgy was very elegant and beautifully carried off. The incense was hazy but not foggy, the servers moved inconspicuously, and the vicar has a very beautiful voice, both in speaking and especially singing.

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

I was disappointed, though, by the new artwork being dedicated today. The sculpture of St Matthew sadly didn't live up to Canon Warner's vivid and gripping description of the apostle – it rather portrays him in the manner of an Edwardian civic dignitary. The choir were also dedicating a newly commissioned mass setting, Northampton Eucharist by David Bednall. The piece seemed far too difficult for them (whether it was a good piece was frankly impossible to judge). One or two of the men sang so loudly that you could rarely hear the tune, but when you could it was as sour as vinegar. Luckily the organ generally drowned them out, sparing us from most of the noise, but in the Sanctus, when the choir sang alone, it really did sound like a gramophone record slowly running out of power. I had come expecting a superb artistic experience but was very unpleasantly surprised.

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

Food and drink had been set out at the back of the church, and everyone headed straight to it.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

A very fine spread. Some people valiantly tried to listen to the virtuoso organ piece at the end of the service, but the noise of clinking glasses and the chatter over the cakes soon drowned that out!

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

7 – The liturgy was nicely carried off and satisfied the soul.

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


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

The heady and well-executed mix of Anglican and Catholic in this superb liturgy.

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