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363: The Oxford Oratory, Oxford, England
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The Oxford Oratory
Mystery Worshipper: Carmel.
The church: The Oxford Oratory (St Aloysius), Oxford, England.
Denomination: Roman Catholic.
The building: Solid Victorian, with solid shiny wooden pews, large plaster statues and several side altars, all very different, made up of elements donated from different religious orders. At the west end of the church there is a large mural of the life of St Aloysius and at the east end some of the windows have pre-Raphaelite style stained glass, while others are plain. The lack of homogeneity makes it one of the more interesting churches to look around.
The neighbourhood: The church is on one of the main roads in central north Oxford, squeezed in between a hospital and a hairdressers, opposite a row of small houses and a Chinese restaurant.
The cast: The fathers and brothers of the Oratory.
What was the name of the service?
Solemn Latin Mass.

How full was the building?
About half-full. A lot of people were on holiday. This is a popular church and is sometimes packed to standing room only.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
No. I helped myself to a hymn book, bilingual mass book and a newsletter.

Was your pew comfortable?
It was OK, if slightly wobbly. The kneelers are in a sad state with splits and black masking tape holding them together.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Busy. People kept arriving, and some greeted people they already knew although they did so quietly. There was a sense of anticipation and bustle as if something exciting was about to happen.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"In nomine Patris, Filii et Spiritus Sancti."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
The hymn book, the mass book and the back of the newsletter, which has the sermon printed on it and the responses for the day.

What musical instruments were played?
Organ.

Did anything distract you?
A persistent fly, which kept buzzing around but refused to come within swatting distance. As the only things I had to hand were holy books, it just confirmed my impression that it was probably a minor demon in disguise.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Seriously formal sung Latin mass complete with stately procession of caped priests, led by a small altar boy with a censer, etc.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
12 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – It was a witty and entertaining sermon.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Why prayers don't always work and how we don't always realize the implications of the things we pray for. God answers us in his own time.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Singing the Mysterium Fidei. I had been rather out of it until then but for a brief minute the clouds parted and I remembered very clearly why I had embarked on all this in the first place. Sadly, this lasted only as long as the Mysterium Fidei.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The choir. They are very good at what they do, and could make recordings with confidence. But they dominate the proceedings and it isn't my kind of music. I also don't feel that 18th century classical music really goes with a plainchant Latin mass, and there are rather a lot of arrangements which the public cannot join in and more than once everything at the altar ground to a halt while we waited for them to finish.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I hung around outside while everyone enthusiastically greeted everyone else. I tried a smile on a nearby older priest who was on his own but he just looked blank. Nobody else approached me – they probably assumed I was waiting for someone.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Ah, now that's a story. Coffee is served in the social club which a priest had once told me was open to all. When I first went some months ago my request for coffee was answered with, "Are you a member of the club?" As I wasn't, I was told I could not have any or buy anything. I asked how I could become a member and was told I had to be recommended by two existing members. My name would then be put forward for the committee to vote on. I said I didn't know anybody, apologized for my intrusion and had been about to leave when two old ladies took pity on me and bought me a drink as their guest. I left feeling extremely embarrassed and vowing I would not go back. If it had not been for the priest saying after today's service that all visitors were welcome in the social club I would not have done so, but I went and this time got served without any problem. The predominant age group is still ladies over 60, though, and I still felt very out of place.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
2 – I don't come here often. The services are very good but if I had to sum up St Aloysius in one phrase I'd say, "for members only". There are social events listed in the newsletter but contact details generally consist of a name only, so unless you already know the person you have no way of getting in touch with them. If you want to see a priest you have to ask the porters' lodge to make a timed appointment for you.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
The service itself was beautiful in fine surroundings, all green and gold and white. But I can't say I felt glad to be a Christian. This is not a reflection on the service, just my current state of mind.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
From the sermon: "Most people who have managed not to sin for a while have usually been dead for at least two weeks."
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