Mystery Worshipper: Beggarman
Church: St Mary's
Location: Newnham Murren, Oxfordshire, England
Date of visit: Thursday, 14 February 2013, 6:00pm
It dates from the 12th century and was constructed of Norman flint. Its style is characteristic of both the historical period and the geographical region, except that the surrounding village has disappeared Newnham Murren now consists of only a single farm! Inside, there is no heating and no electricity, and the only light comes from dozens of candles. The building was restored in the 19th century, at which time many of its original fittings were removed.
The UK Mission of ROCOR, quoting from their website, wishes "to restore a genuinely 'Western Orthodoxy' to the British Isles." It has two stated aims: "to return Orthodoxy to the West" and "to return Western Orthodox theology and liturgy to the life of the wider Orthodox Church." To this end, they "reach out warmly to Christians of other denominations, and invite them to come home to the Orthodox Church." The Western Rite is intended to attract those who "have been deterred from becoming Orthodox by the prospect of having to worship in ways that are very unfamiliar to them." It offers a "liturgy developed by the saints and martyrs who founded and sustained the churches in the West up until the Great Schism." The website quotes St John Maximovitch: "The West was Orthodox for a thousand years, and her venerable liturgy is far older than any of her heresies."
The church occupies a picturesque setting near the River Thames, just south of the Chilterns. There are more farm animals than people. If you visit after dark, be sure to pack wellies, thermals, hi-vis, and a torch; the church is down a muddy and fairly well-manured farm track, then across a reasonably smooth but unlit churchyard lawn. The 12th century architects didn't plan for car parks.
Vespers was sung in the presence of His Grace Bishop Jerome of Manhattan, Vicar Bishop of the Diocese of Eastern America and New York, Vicar Bishop of the Western Rite Vicariate, and Deputy Secretary of the Synod of Bishops. The sanctuary party consisted of priest, deacon (or subdeacon or master of ceremonies I'm not sure) and cantor, none of whom were named.
What was the name of the service?Festal Vespers.
How full was the building?
In such a small space, two dozen of us felt like a very good number.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes, warmly despite the fact that I was obviously not Bishop Jerome, whose delayed arrival was awaited by the congregation somewhat anxiously.
Was your pew comfortable?
It being customary to stand during Orthodox services, the narrow wooden pews were redundant.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quiet anticipation. There was some gentle socialising, followed by communal singing of Taize chants, led by the chap who I gather would be the Anglican vicar if the building still belonged to the Church of England.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"O God, make speed to save us."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Booklet for vespers; photocopied sheet music and words for psalms.
What musical instruments were played?
None, but who needs instruments when there is such fine singing by congregation and cantor?
Did anything distract you?
Flashes of artificial light from people taking photographs or using torches to try to make out the very small print of the service booklet.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Byzantine with a British twist: English-language throughout, bar the odd Kyrie eleison, and a couple of Marian hymns added, which would be very familiar to anyone from an Anglo- or Roman Catholic background. I particularly enjoyed the deacon (if that's who he was) walking quietly down the aisle during the Magnificat as he censed the people (or was it the building?).
Exactly how long was the sermon?
No sermon: His Grace had apparently already strained his voice during his busy schedule earlier in the day.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Incense, the flickering light of candles, traditional chant, a building more or less bare of modern accretions. If not quite heaven, it gave as good a sense as one is likely to experience of what worship must have been like in the church when it was first built (c 12th century).
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Cold feet (literally). Also, for the visitor, a massive sense of temporal dislocation. "Odd" is a wholly inadequate term to describe how it felt, celebrating a Christmastide festival on what was, in most Western church calendars, the second day of Lent. All those festive candles perched on every window ledge people assuring me that "the church looks even prettier at Christmas when the snow is lying on the roof" while my stomach was rumbling from fasting!
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Not a lot, but the main opportunity for fellowshipping had been beforehand. It seemed that no one could leave in their motor until the bishop had moved his (rather nice) vehicle. I heard two different people offer a lift to the one worshipper who had walked there. Whether that says something about ROCOR or more about rural society in South Oxfordshire I could not say, but it was a nice touch.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
No refreshments: 12th-century architectural plans did not run to facilities like a kitchen (or loo!).
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 – If this were available regularly, rather than as an occasional treat, I might well consider it. But there would be some awkward questions to address: Why does "Western Rite" follow a calendar that is out of synch with that used by most of the rest of Britain? How does the social-action side of the church work? Where are the kinds of characters in the congregation women in particular to counterbalance the clergy? Where are the children?
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
On the whole, yes. Very strong on taking me out of myself and directing attention toward God. But not so hot on being conscious of our working and interceding for the needs of the world.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The censing during the Magnificat. This could have looked immensely silly, but the effect was timeless and beautiful.