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348: Holy Nativity, Knowle, Bristol, England
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Holy Nativity, Knowle, Bristol
Mystery Worshipper: Victoria Sponge.
The church: Holy Nativity, Knowle, Bristol, England.
Denomination: Church of England.
The building: The present church was completed in the 1950s and replaces a late Victorian building which was destroyed in the blitz of 1940. The tower is all that is left of the original church, although it was not completed until the 1930s. The west end of the church, facing the street, is bleak, so the interior comes as a very pleasant surprise: neo-Romanesque, with startling apse, clerestory, and a great feeling of light and space. Cheap building materials have been disguised well, the bricks of the apse with paint and a mosaic, and the breezeblock ceiling with terracotta paint. The mosaic, which forms the focal point of the apse, depicts the Holy Nativity. Our Lady sports a voluminous white mantilla over the usual blue, and a figure which would be the envy of any recently-delivered woman. All members of the Holy Family are equipped with rather spindly haloes of huge diameter,which looked like the light fittings on the ceiling.
The neighbourhood: The church is perched on a steep hill in the Totterdown area of the city, a short walk from Temple Meads station. The Bristol Women's Workshop offers furniture construction classes (one presumes only to women) just one block down. The busy A37 to Wells rumbles past outside and feeds onto streets of terraced and semi-detached Victorian houses, many of which seemed to house families.
The cast: Vicar: Canon Keith Newton. Celebrant and Preacher: Fr. Jack House.
What was the name of the service?
Solemn Mass for the Birthday of John the Baptist.

How full was the building?
60 per cent full. It transpired that the vicar had celebrated his 25th anniversary of ordination to the priesthood the previous day with a bumper mass, and many regulars had treated the occasion as their weekly dose.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
The leaflet was handed over with a smile. People were happy to exchange the peace with a stranger.

Was your pew comfortable?
No. Seating consisted of small linked chairs spaced to suit the vertically challenged. Any slumping in prayer could have caused a structural failure, so one had to be dainty on the standard-issue hassock.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
People were very talkative, though not riotous. Had they rung a bell at the sacristy door, only a bat could have heard it.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit..."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
Specially-printed mass book, collared from Common Worship; Hymns Ancient and Modern (New Standard). Celebration Hymnal for Everyone was available for perusal, but not used.

What musical instruments were played?
The organ did some unexpected things, the operator being an invisible person in favour of considerable volume and vigour. The beginning of the sanctus was not suitable for the easily startled.

Did anything distract you?
Canon Newton is evidently a trendy fellow. He was sporting a flared stole, which might have been constructed by the sewing together of a couple of legs of embroidered loons, so popular in the 1970s and now enjoying a renaissance in certain circles. It looked very heavy and didn't flap about at all, so probably had lead shot sewn into the hems. Very smart, though!

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Firmly but unaggressively Anglo-Catholic. Celebrant in white chasuble. Acolytes sported a good 2cms of lace at hems and cuffs of cottas. There was no prancing or posing in the sanctuary, and no extraneous personnel.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
17 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – He waited for complete stillness before he started and had an engaging style.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
It covered many aspects of the life of John the Baptist, whose birthday we were celebrating, and made the point that he did not survive to see the death and resurrection of our Lord. He made sorties into several loosely-associated areas, and was never boring.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Before going out to Sunday School, the children processed up to the altar to be presented with a Bible and a candle to take with them, thus affirming and drawing attention to their part in the church. Also heavenly was singing the hymns, which included "Lord Jesus Christ, you have come to us", considered rather outré in my usual church.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The pelican crossing outside pinged repeatedly. The notices were delivered between the liturgy of the sacrament and the dismissal, which does not seem a natural break. I was sorry that the spiritual high generated by the mass should have been displaced, albeit temporarily, so soon by talk of a local surplus of cold ham and soft fruits, and the transportation of youths.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Everyone was genuinely friendly, and clearly on a high after the preceding day's festivities.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Fairly-traded instant, in a china cup. Squash and tea were also available. Gin was not. Nobody seemed particularly eccentric, which was disappointing.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 – I felt pretty close to home here.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Emphatically yes.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
Watching the shafts of light from the clerestory illuminating the sanctuary and penetrating the incense which on this hot, still day had stratified, whilst singing that hymn.
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