Mystery Worshipper: Beggarman
Church: Blackfriars Priory Church
Location: Oxford, England
Date of visit: Saturday, 24 December 2022, 8:30pm
This is so much more than just a conventual chapel! Simple enough in style (Gothic-revival streamlined; décor matches ‘home-team’ colours), but spacious enough to accommodate a good number of members of the public. Construction began, I believe, in 1924, to a design by Doran Webb; and was quickly paid for, thanks to benefactors, notably an American lady, Charlotte Jefferson Tytus. The building, fixtures, and fittings have altered little since, except for chancel stalls, which were new in 1963, and facilities for live-streaming (a legacy of pandemic era). Light and airy during the day; at night, on a major date in the Church calendar, cosy.
The church is part of the Dominican (Order of Preachers) Priory of the Holy Spirit and Studium. The Dominicans, aka ‘Blackfriars’ on account of black cloak – cappa nigra – worn over white habit, have been on the Oxford scene, on and off, since 1221. They were on long before the new-fangled colleges appeared; and were definitely off during the Reformation years. The present priory was founded in 1921 by Fr Bede Jarrett OP; the church part opened for business in 1929. It was not until 1994 that Blackfriars Hall rejoined the University of Oxford. Alumni include philosopher Roger Scruton (died January 2020) and spiritual writer, onetime Master of the Order, still very much alive, Timothy Radcliffe OP.
The Priory is tucked behind black iron railings off one of the busiest, and broadest, streets in town. Blackfriars is one of several late 19th/early 20th century ecclesiastical shacks of different varieties, all congregated on the west side of the road. The public entrance being from the east, the high altar is orientated westwards.
Leading, serving, preaching – all done by friars. The small choir was made up of lay volunteers. One of the Bible readings was given by a member of the congregation, and the taking up of the collection was also done by the laity.
What was the name of the service?Mass of Christmas Night with Vigils.
How full was the building?
Plenty of elbow room, but a large enough congregation for the carol-singing portions of the service to work.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Not exactly. We had to make our own way to the chapel, and pick up a service booklet from a side-table on walking in; but we had already had a cheery, good-natured, seasonal greeting from the rough-sleepers on St Giles.
Was your pew comfortable?
If most of the seating dates from the 1920s, those chairs have done very well to hold out. They felt as if they were designed to complement the friars’ mission of preaching by keeping the sitter awake and alert.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Eager anticipation, as much for social reasons as devotion to the Lord. For some people this was the first big church service they’d been to in three years. Lots of excited whispering!
What were the exact opening words of the service?
The Mass kicked off, as always, with ‘In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.’ The pre-Mass warm-up had begun with one of the brothers wishing us ‘Good evening: Happy Christmas!’ The first line of the carol before Mass – ‘O come, O come, Emmanuel’ – gave us a quick recap of the liturgical story so far, putting us into an Advent frame of mind.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
None: the handsomely printed leaflet supplied words and music as needed by the congregation; and gave the references for the various readings. I didn’t see any orders of service available for anyone not familiar with the pattern of the Mass – or in this case, Mass combined with the Office of Readings.
What musical instruments were played?
Only one: a small organ. The human voice did most of the heavy lifting, often unaccompanied.
Did anything distract you?
A fellow-worshipper singing their heart out during the hymns. Not a bad voice, well in tune, keeping good time, but… deploying full voice from underneath a face-mask. Result: the sound was horribly distorted. Fortunately, there were very few face-coverings in use, so the congregation as a whole did not resemble a chorus of demented gnats.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Liturgical, but a relaxed feel to it, and the style simple, monastic, no frills, in keeping with celebrating the coming of the One who lived with the poor and lowly.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
5 — Rooted in philosophical discourse, as well as scripture, without being overly cerebral.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Ah, now there you have me, because I’m not sure. I think the point the preacher was making was that in the bleak midwinter of this world we need hope in God; and that such hope is entirely well placed. But that wasn’t how the preacher put it, and I may have wholly misunderstood.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The motet sung during the distribution of communion: ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ (Darke). Sublime words, music to match, superbly delivered – it perfectly articulated my own response to the material presented during the service.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Peering through the fug, trying to make sense of what was going on at the front. The fumes were only the accumulated output of candles and incense. I knew I wasn’t really going to suffocate, but the haze seemed thickest when the language of the liturgy shifted to an ecclesiastical variety of English which I found hard to follow, and which didn’t quite flow readily off the tongue.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I was promptly engaged in deep conversation by another member of the congregation. We could have gone on happily talking all night, were it not for the fact that we did eventually notice that the brothers – who were very hospitable – nevertheless were wanting to wrap things up and get to bed.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Not coffee. In a return to normality after a certain pandemic, the congregation was invited into the priory itself for hot chocolate and mince pies. Which was the most wonderful, and (for newcomers) unexpected, bonus.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 — For dates in the Church calendar which are big occasion, but which one would prefer to celebrate without grandeur or bling, this would be a go-to place. Depending on people’s situation, that might be every Sunday. I think it would furnish a diet of intellectually high-calibre preaching and a lively, supportive congregation.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
On the whole yes. I note the possibility of a newcomer feeling completely at sea. On the other hand, people around me seemed to pick up pretty quickly that I did know most of the ropes. My guess is that if I’d been looking lost and helpless, they’d have given me a helping hand.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
A scene after the service: back in the priory, a white-robed Dominican wearing a Santa hat.