A baroque barn, to my eye. Thrusting skywards in an architectural salient; bordered by what is now Somerville College. I guess it was limitations of space which led to the church being laid out on a traditional east-west axis, but back to front. Entrance is from the east, off Woodstock Road; the altar and magnificent stone reredos are at the west end – though you’d be hard put to know, once inside. The guide books tell me the church is Gothic Revival, specifically French Gothic with Italianate décor, and completed in 1875. Originally staffed by Jesuits; witness the pictorial biogs of St Edmund Campion SJ, and St Aloysius Gonzaga SJ, which still feature on the interior back wall. The paintings are now sadly faded; I gather the artist now lives in Australia. The rest of the interior is ‘all beautiful and bright… vast fields of light’, to quote today’s concluding hymn.
The church began as a late 19th century Catholic mission church, and was later transferred to Birmingham Diocese. Since the 1990s, parish and church have been served by Oratorians. The Oxford Oratory of St Philip Neri (and of St Aloysius Gonzaga), founded with members drawn from Birmingham Oratory, has so flourished that the church has been systematically restored, a new parish centre built (out of sight from the courtyard), and the presbytery extended to accommodate the next generation of Oratorians in formation. Famous ‘alumni’ include the poet-priest Gerard Manley Hopkins, who was curate here; poet-priest (later cardinal, ultimately saint) John Henry Newman, who was a visiting preacher; and in the pews, poet-professor JRR Tolkien.
Until modern times, the neighbourhood was on the northern perimeter of Oxford. The church, which is dedicated to Philip Neri, a young man who died nursing the sick, is opposite the ancient Church of St Giles, which was next to the medieval city’s leper hospital. Just to the north is the location of the 18th-century Radcliffe Infirmary, now Radcliffe Observatory Quarter, University of Oxford.
Cecil B DeMille eat your heart out! This really was a cast of thousands upon thousands. The altar party alone looked to be 11 chaps (priest, deacon, sub-deacon, lector, preacher, MC, thurifer, crucifer, acolytes, altar boy), it’s hard to count when they’re all dotting about during the liturgy. Then there was the Oratory choir (largely unseen in the gallery behind) and the organist. And all those carved saints looking down on proceedings. It’s impossible to forget here that one is in the full company of heaven.
What was the name of the service?Solemn Mass.
How full was the building?
Not quite packed, but latecomers (of whom there were many, as this is a ‘destination church’) had difficulty finding spaces. It’s the all-professional choir in the gallery behind the congregation which gives the sensation of being in a big crowd in full voice.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Welcomers handing out pew sheets gave cheery smiles and generic greetings. They tactfully offered additional service booklets with full copies of the words (and translation) for those of us who looked as if we were not seasoned worshippers.
Was your pew comfortable?
Surprisingly comfortable to sit in, once you’d shoe-horned yourself in. They really must pack them in at busy periods! The spacing between rows is so narrow it would be jolly difficult for anyone with mobility problems to shuffle past anyone who was already seated. The good thing about that was it meant we (the congregation) had to talk to our neighbours, and help each other out. I did wonder where one could park a wheelchair and still have a view of what was going on, but I’m sure the enterprising parishioners of the Oratory would come up with something before one had even asked.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quiet. Early-comers settled deep into silent prayer; many of them appeared to be the same ones who lingered in their places after the service to continue their devotions. Most people arriving greeted friends with a silent wave. Chattering was fortissimo outside in the courtyard, diminuendo in the narthex. For a brief while I wondered if there would be any lady at all to be seen not donning a mantilla as they entered.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
‘Asperges me.’ (Yes, it’s the kind of church where, at least on special occasions, clergy parade up and down the nave sprinkling holy water, while members of the congregation make the sign of the cross if ‘hit’.) It was very hard to make out the words when chanted by someone who’s probably not a trained singer, and is turned away from the congregation, facing the altar. The first spoken words were crystal clear: ‘In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti.’
What books did the congregation use during the service?
A well-thumbed blue booklet, The Order of Mass in Latin and English, a hymn sheet for the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the current issue of The Red Redemptorist Mass Leaflet (one side of A4 pre-printed with scripture readings, prayers, antiphons, etc., of the day, with the reverse side personalised for the parish).
What musical instruments were played?
Organ – which is heftier than the original instrument, constructed using existing and new parts between 1998 and 2004 by Matthew Copley.
Did anything distract you?
Glimpsing someone who for a moment looked as if he could be Professor Tolkien himself dropping by. Wondering if there was any significance in whether a mantilla was black or white, especially when worn by a younger adult. Noticing that one member of the altar party appeared not to be concentrating, then realising he was MC, so it was his job to be looking about him all the time, so that other people could relax and go with the flow.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Deeply liturgical. The Latin was spoken so fluently it was sometimes hard to remember it wasn’t a modern language.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
7 mins. A model of clarity and concision.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 — the format was the exposition of doctrine, making it meaningful and relevant.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The topic set for the day by the church calendar was death. Specifically, the death of Mary the Mother of the Lord, and why it matters that Christians believe in bodily resurrection. If God’s purpose is about the whole of us – body as well as the ‘spiritual’ bits – then what we do with or to our bodies, or to other people’s bodies, counts.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Suddenly realising that, in some dimension, the professor was indeed there, and all my fellow-Christians.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The heat! Literally, it being one of the hottest and stillest days of the year. Several members of the congregation, young and old, were mopping brows, using service sheets as fans, leaving early.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Not a great deal. People were friendly enough, exchanging a few lines of conversation, but not inclined to linger.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Café Neri, which serves post-Mass coffee, was taking a summer break.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 — This is an excellent place to go to for special occasions, e.g. days of the church calendar which my own church wouldn’t do anything about in a hundred years.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, despite the fact that there were whole tracts of the service which I couldn’t follow at all. It was an invitation to yield in prayer to the God whom after all I cannot begin to comprehend.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
A member of the congregation slowly and deliberately taking the long route back to their seat after making their communion. Every painful step through the house of God, a prayer?