A Gothic church with a tall spire, built in white stone called ragstone. This doesn’t wear that well and goes crumbly with age, though St Mary's seems to be in reasonable nick. It was completed in about 1850 to serve the slums of east London, near to what were then docks of the Empire's leading port. The architects were F. & H. Francis – about whom I could find out nothing.
Quoting from their mission statement: ‘We are seeking to build a community which offers a place of belonging, safety, confidence, friendship and service – in a space where growth can take place and people can experience love.’ They have a parish hall alongside, where there are offices of various community projects plus a fair trade stall on the third Sunday of every month. There are daily services throughout the week.
Cable Street was, in the 1930s, a strongly Jewish area and it elected numerous communist local councillors. The street became something of a front-line in the fight against home-grown fascism in England. On 4 October 1936, members of the British Union of Fascists led by Oswald Mosley, its founder, staged a march through the area, attracting large groups of anti-fascist demonstrators. The Metropolitan Police were sent in to protect the marchers, but ended up dodging sticks, rotten vegetables, and even the contents of chamber pots thrown at them by the protestors. Arrests ensued. This event is still widely commemorated as ‘The Battle of Cable Street’ and a huge mural on the wall of the local town hall shows it. Today the area's occupants are largely Bangladeshi Muslims. There is a smattering of eastern Europeans and a tiny minority of middle class gentrifiers. The church is almost totally surrounded by social housing schemes; the local community, though less than a mile from the international financial centre of the City of London, has notable pockets of deprivation.
The altar party consisted of priest celebrating in the presence of a bishop. There were also a deacon, four servers, and a visiting preacher. St Mary’s Bourne Street, a church on the other side of London with a notably educated and prosperous congregation, had lent their choir to St Mary's Cable Street for the festival. The two churches have established a cross-town link, which is nice to hear.
What was the name of the service?Solemn Mass for the Birthday of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Patronal Festival).
How full was the building?
Fifty people in the pews, plus a choir of nine and altar party. So the smallish church was companionably full. It was difficult to tell on this occasion who were regular worshippers and who were visitors.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
The welcomer was on duty but engaged with some explanations to others. We found our own service sheets.
Was your pew comfortable?
A traditional simple pew – firm, trusty and comfortable.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
What were the exact opening words of the service?
Bogoróditse Dyévo, ráduisya (Rejoice O Virgin, Theotokos) set by Rachmaninov and really beautifully sung, with those fruity deep bass notes so characteristic of Russian Orthodox liturgical music.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
We had two service sheets specially for the day – everything, including the readings in full, were in them. We also used the Catholic Hymn Book, a slim volume where I noticed that the numbering of the hymns started at 801. Where were the first 800 hymns – perhaps too Wesleyan for the editors' taste?
What musical instruments were played?
An organ, an electric job, played very well by a stand-in organist. The pedal notes from its loudspeakers shook the concrete floor.
Did anything distract you?
The shrine of Our Lady was well lit with candles: they were celebrating her birthday, after all! I felt one of these burned perilously close to the fresh lacy veil the statue was adorned with. I made a mental note to keep one eye on the veil in case of conflagration, but nothing unseemly happened.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Traditionally catholic, solemn in every respect. The hymns were Marian in content, as is fitting for such a festival. I am not quite comfortable with the sweetly sentimental version of Marian devotion in these hymns – even though they are to many others precisely a source of comfort. The bishop sitting in the sanctuary wore a very large purple biretta in shiny silk, more cubic in shape than most, with pillbox tendencies towards a square version of an Orthodox Jewish schtreimel (large circular fur hat). He seemed to carry his richly embroidered stole draped over his arm, rather than round his neck. Was this a subtle theological gesture (he was not, after all, the celebrant) or to show off its embroidery (which was indeed remarkable and lavish). He wore finest slub silk in episcopal purple and a very lacy cotta. Come to think of it, I should have listed the bishop in full fig as a distraction, albeit a rather enjoyable one.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
6 — The preacher was a visiting vicar from one of the neighbouring parishes.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The preacher took at his theme the vision of Mary witnessed by Lady Richeldis, a Saxon noblewoman and Lady of Walsingham Manor, in 1061, just before the Norman Invasion. According to legend, Mary told Lady Richeldis to build a replica of the house in which the Angel Gabriel had announced to Mary that she would be the mother of Jesus. The subsequent chapel at Walsingham has become a celebrated pilgrimage shrine, energetially revivied in the 20th century by both Anglicans and Roman Catholics, making Marian devotion more accessible.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
There were just nine in the choir and they sang four Marian devotions by Rachmaninov, Grieg, and two by the Spanish Renaissance master Francisco Guerrero. This they did really beautifully.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The church left its west doors open. This undoubtedly looked welcoming to anyone passing by, but there was some traffic noise. To that was added the sound of occasional police helicopters and planes coming in to land at London City Airport, just two miles distant. Some of this intruded a little on the fine choir singing.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
No chance! We were all invited for refreshments and given directions. The people of the parish had laid out a buffet for us in the hall next door. We were not asked for a contribution (which I would have gladly given).
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Red and white wine and soft drinks.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
6 — It’s not my part of town and my tastes these days are a bit too modern for St Mary's – but this small congregation are loyally cleaving to the traditional catholic version of Christianity in a challenging neighbourhood. We were made to feel at home for their festival.
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 choir singing Guerrero – every time I hear this guy's music it rapidly transports me to somewhere beyond the here and now.