Mystery Worshipper: Clinking Thurible
Church: St Nicholas of Myra
Location: Brighton, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 6 February 2022, 10:30am
St Nicholas is one of Brighton and Hove's oldest buildings, and certainly the oldest in Brighton proper. Cruciform in layout, unlike many other Brighton churches, it looks every inch the Norman parish church: thick stone walls, a squat square tower, and bright stained glass by the 19th century master craftsman Charles Eamer Kempe. Inside, the church is beautifully decorated with paintings on the east and west walls of the nave. There is also a tall, gilded rood screen, something unusual for Sussex churches.
The church calls itself ‘Brighton's ancient mother church’ (Brighton is one of Britain's largest settlements not to have a cathedral), it being Brighton's oldest church. They share in ministry to St Paul’s Church of England Primary School along with St Paul’s itself and one other church. They host a gender and sexuality group, (quoting from their website) ‘which aims to provide mutual support, friendship and a safe space to explore gender and sexuality in their relationship to faith for anyone exploring these issues.’ They also sponsor lunchtime concerts every Wednesday. There are two eucharists each Sunday, plus weekday masses on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday.
The city of Brighton and Hove, of which Brighton is one area, is located on the southeast coast of England. The Domesday Book mentions a settlement called Brighthelmstone – the name Brighton dates from 1660. A popular tourist and daytripper destination (although this has waned in recent years), commerce also figures prominently in the local economy – American Express’s European headquarters are located there. The city is also known for great shopping. St Nicholas stands in juxtaposition to the surrounding neighbourhood: the Montpelier district is all graceful, whitewashed Georgian villas, the architecture that so typifies the well-to-do English seaside resort.
The curate, vested in chasuble and cassock-alb, presided and preached the sermon, with the vicar in cassock-alb and stole reading the gospel and acting as deacon. They were assisted by a crucifer-cum-altar server and a thurifer, vested in a very attractive style of cassock-alb and green cincture.
What was the name of the service?Eucharist – Fourth Sunday before Lent.
How full was the building?
As full as I have seen a parish church for some time, with surely over a hundred worshippers. This brought the church to what felt like around three-quarters capacity. This was, I'm told, in part due to this service being the curate's last in the parish; though another parishioner told me that numbers rarely fall below seventy for the Sunday mass. The congregation were pleasingly and refreshingly diverse in age and gender (if not in ethnicity).
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes – two greeters were present at the door to hand me an order of service and welcome me to the church – one of whom was very apologetic for having let the door slam in my face as I entered the porch of the church. I forgave her – it was a very chilly day.
Was your pew comfortable?
Instead of pews, there were cushioned chairs. While they were comfortable, I felt they detracted somewhat from the otherwise ancient surrounds of the church. There were also no kneelers.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Chatty! Lots of people having gossipy conversations with those around them, greeting other parishioners who were back from holiday/hospital/their daughter-in-law's new house/et cetera. Children were being gathered into their designated corner of the church; Zoom screens were being set up; and so on. Far from this being a problem (for me, at least), it typified my overarching view of this church as a true community church, where the Christian experience is shared as much through the Sacrament as through fellowship with one another. I think that's lovely. (And I hear Aunt Mildred's gout is easing up, too.)
What were the exact opening words of the service?
Following the singing of ‘Dear Lord and Father of Mankind,’ we were greeted by the curate with ‘In the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit.’
What books did the congregation use during the service?
All material was printed in the order of service. I'm afraid I couldn't find out which Bible version was used.
What musical instruments were played?
An organ and a grand piano, accompanying a volunteer choir.
Did anything distract you?
The clear emotion with which the curate conducted this service. It became evident, through speeches from the vicar and members of the congregation, as well as subsequent conversations with parishioners, that she was held in extremely high regard by the church community. This feeling was present throughout the service, and was very moving, even for someone with no prior connection to this church.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
St Nicholas is a church in the Catholic tradition of Anglicanism. Many churches in Brighton are, thanks to the influence of a late 19th/early 20th century vicar whose Anglo-Catholic zeal successfully rooted many of the Anglican churches in the city in this practice. St Nicholas has found its niche as a very inclusive church in this tradition, accepting female clergy and affirming LGBT rights within the Church of England. The worship reflected this: clearly Anglo-Catholic, with incense, beautiful vestments, and the big six on the high altar (though the mass was celebrated on the low altar, versus populum), but in more modern language, and celebrated by a woman. All of which suited this Mystery Worshipper down to the ground.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 — The curate was a passionate preacher who skillfully connected the scripture to her own life and the life of the congregation. The sermon was a touch lengthier than one's classical Anglican offering, and perhaps lacked a pithy conclusion to tie together the divers themes discussed, but did not ramble.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Several things. First, the importance of and value in maintaining inherited tradition. This was introduced with a description of Tomte, a benign woodland sprite found in Swedish folklore, a story passed down to her through the oral tradition of her parents. Readers may think this sounds cringeworthy, but it was actually a very personal anecdote that connected surprisingly well to her analysis of the Creed and the reading of the epistle. The second part of her sermon focussed on the gospel reading of Jesus' miracle at the Lake of Gennesaret, appealing to the congregation to follow Peter and never to be afraid of God's calling. Certainly a sermon of two halves.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
It was a unique pleasure of the Mystery Worshipper to be a transitory member of the congregation, to observe the foibles of church communities in a snapshot of their spiritual life. To see this flock come together to bid Godspeed to their shepherd was a true pleasure, and spoke volumes about both the warmth of this community and the reverence in which this curate was clearly held.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The usual Sunday school co-ordinator was otherwise engaged for this service, so many young children were present throughout. Lovely for them to be included, but moments of the sermon were somewhat drowned out.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Two parishioners sat in front and alongside me both welcomed me to the church, and explained today's special festivities. They had clearly both clocked me as a newcomer, and were very keen to engage me in conversation.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Prosecco for the curate's last mass. Would have been rude to refuse, of course.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
10 — I will most certainly be returning to this church as soon as possible. I was made to feel so welcome. How refreshing it was to be a part of what appeared to be a truly thriving congregation. Joyous.
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 curate shedding a tear as she processed from the altar back to the vestry. Godspeed to her.