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475: The Catholic Community, The Great Hall, Nottingham University, England
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The Catholic Community, The Great Hall, Nottingham University, England
Mystery Worshipper: Requiem.
The church: The Catholic Community of the University of Nottingham, The Great Hall, Nottingham University, England.
Denomination: Roman Catholic.
The building: The Great Hall is an imposing white marble structure within the university buildings. It is rich with art nouveau detailing. Geometric columns supporting lights hidden in seashell motifs reach up to the pale blue and gilt ceiling. For the service, the stage curtains are closed and a table is covered with a cloth to form a simple altar.
The church: The church caters to the University of Nottingham and welcomes an eclectic mix of students of all nationalities and dress senses. A few townies, looking slightly out of place in skirts and suits, were also present.
The neighbourhood: The hall is within the university complex, accessible only through barriers with guards.
The cast: Father Philip O'Dowd.
What was the name of the service?

How full was the building?
Less than a third of the 150 or so seats were taken. I understand that in term-time the place is full to bursting.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
I was welcomed, a little awkwardly, by the lass who gave me my hymnbook. Father Philip also introduced himself briefly.

Was your pew comfortable?
No pews. Instead our bums graced squidgy blue chairs. They were so comfortable I could have quite happily sat there all day.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The atmosphere of quiet whispering was punctuated by the music group practising snatches of the hymns and the assistant chaplain hunting up volunteers for the readings.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
Spoken by one of the music group: "Good morning everyone, umm..."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
Laudate. An order of service called "The New Mass Book" was also available but I seemed to be the only one who needed it. Everyone else was familiar enough with the liturgy not to need the aid of leaflets.

What musical instruments were played?
Violin and guitar were played competently and added greatly to the service. There were also a couple of talented singers.

Did anything distract you?
The Bob the Builder wannabe in the back row, who was noisily bashing a pair of blue plastic pliers against the chair in front. The dubious pleasure of playing guess the liturgy as the rite lurched in and out of familiarity.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The worship surprised me in its plainness. It was my first experience of a Catholic mass, and I was expecting something hugely tat-laden. My Anglican church has more smoke and twiddles than this. However, the reserved and simple elegance, with the congregation participating fully in the worship, seemed very meaningful. The music was a mixture of modern hymns and a Taizé chant.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
12 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – The delivery was clear, forceful and (impressively) without notes. He seemed to have an itch lurking somewhere under his chasuble, and rummaged behind his back two or three times to try and find it.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
We all tend to separate our formal religious expression from how we act in real life. It's very easy, with the best of intentions, to make compromises. But you can't build goodness, justice or happiness on evil. The terrible events of recent months were briefly referred to, with Saddam Hussein described at "that dubious man."

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Fr. Philip took a breath for the Gloria. I settled back, expecting the usual priestly drone. Surprise. This guy can sing. In tune. It was utterly wonderful. I felt shivers run down my spine. Bits of the Catholic liturgy, with which I am unfamiliar, are very cool. I found that hearing the different words, even though the meaning is very similar to my home liturgy, kicked me into concentrating on what was being said.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Some of the rest of the singing was pretty ropey. Many of the congregation were new and the hymns chosen were unfamiliar. Unfortunately they didn't have the classical hymn rhythmâ which would have enabled us to fudge joining in. Even more unfortunately, the echoing marble space is an uncompromising one for anything less than enthusiastic singing.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
There were one or two moments of uncomfortable aloneness before I was swept up in a conversation on Sandman comics and role-playing.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
No coffee. I'm told there is instant in plastic cups in term time.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 – That score should be much higher, as I would love to make this my church, if it were not for the fact I would be forever barred from communion.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, it did. This church obviously acts as a real source of support and friendship for the students who go. They were very welcoming to me and to the other newcomers and non-catholics in the congregation. There was a real sense of sincerity and acceptance in their worship of God.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The robed priest being very ably assisted by a server in football shirt, blue jeans and trainers.
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