|480: St Mary de Castro, Leicester, England|
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Mystery Worshipper: Monty Moose.
The church: St Mary de Castro, Castle Street, Leicester, England.
The building: Your traditional medieval jobby 900 years old with spire, plenty of archways and gargoyles, shrines, altars and vaults hidden in nooks and crannies, very beautiful. The church is within the outer wall ("bailey") of Leicester Castle and is proud of its long history (the building is described extensively on the website). Inside, the impressive stained glass window behind the altar was virtually invisible to me as I squinted myopically down the length of the seemingly endless chancel. The readings were read from an intricately carved wooden lectern in the shape of a bird of prey with its wings half-outstretched.
The church: Built by the Normans as a royal church, St Mary de Castro ("of the castle") was visited by influential people throughout the middle ages Simon De Montfort, Henry VI, John Wycliffe and Geoffrey Chaucer was married there. It has a long list of sponsors for its "Challenge 900" project, aimed at providing funds to maintain the church into the 21st century.
The neighbourhood: The church sits in the historic centre of Leicester within 5-10 minutes walk you can reach the Jewry Wall (the ruins of a Roman bath house), Magazine, Leicester Castle (originally a motte and bailey, so all that remains now is a hill), St Nicholas' Church (also medieval), the Guildhall and Newarke Museum (which contains the clothes of Daniel Lambert, Britain's fattest man). The canal lies on the other side of Castle Gardens, flanked by Victorian factories. Interspersed with Leicester's history are modern developments such as the 60s cement-block Vaughan College and the rectangular tower of the Holiday Inn.
The cast: The officiant was Fr. Alan Hawker. Vicar of the church is Fr. David Cawley I don't know whether he was there or not.
What was the name of the service?
Solemn Evensong and Benediction.
How full was the building?
I counted 10 people, including myself, scattered about the pews, plus about 10 choristers and other robed figures in the chancel.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
We arrived on the dot of 6.30pm and were welcomed by an imposing wooden double door, which was shut. Once inside, it was left up to us to spot the service books sitting on the back pew and to find our seats.
Was your pew comfortable?
Firm, wooden, but jutted out far enough to allow comfortable sitting rather than perching.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Solemn organ music while the congregation waited silently and the near-empty rows gave the place a sombre, almost ghostly, feel. I felt like I had walked back in time, and wished I'd worn something more formal than jeans and donkey jacket. A young boy in the front row fidgeted listlessly, apparently unawed by the majestic surroundings.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"The first reading is taken from the book of Proverbs, chapter 8..."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Book of Common Prayer, The New English Hymnal, sheet containing the words of the Benediction. Not a Bible in sight aside from the King James Version, which was read from the front in ecclesiastical tones.
What musical instruments were played?
Organ, plus very good choir of five or six men.
Did anything distract you?
Coming from a very low Anglican background, I found the all-pervading musty incense made me feel like I was in a hippy clothes shop. I had to stifle giggles as the boy at the front tried desperately to fan away the smoke as the bloke with the thurible, who looked like a grown up version of the Milky Bar kid, passed by. Equally amusing was the strained counter-tenor from the choir at several points during the liturgy. The second reading was taken from the book of Revelation, and at the exact point the reader read the phrase, "peals of thunder", violent sneezing was heard from somewhere up at the front, rendering me helpless with mirth.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
"Solemn" seems an appropriate description traditional hymns played on the organ and accompanied by the choir completely drowned out the weak voices of the congregation. I found the words of one of the hymns quite uplifting, but unfortunately the tune seemed to have been pitched somewhere up in the rafters and I was stuck between squeaking unpleasantly or adopting a rough baritone unbecoming of someone of my sex.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The majesty of the building, combined with the singing of the choir, was truly wonderful at times...
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
... but unfortunately the more monotonous parts of the liturgy seemed to go on for ever. At no point did anyone tell us what page of the Prayer Book or accompanying sheet we were on, so I was left in a constant state of bewilderment as to what was happening, what response I should be singing, why we were there or what any of it meant. It all seemed quite arcane.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
The officiating priest stood at the back, shook our hands and asked me, "How have you been?" I'm not sure he realized that we weren't regulars. Awkward silence (not unusual for C of E situation of any kind), then he moved on to the next person and we left.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none. Everyone left pretty sharpish.
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
2 It was harmless enough but I didn't feel as if I'd met with God at any point during the service. Plus I don't think I could cope with all that singing.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Sadly, no. It made me feel like the church has made up its own version of reality which doesn't have much to do with the world outside its walls.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The kid who didn't like the incense and the way the woman with the offering plate and the man with the thurible had to keep bowing to different people like they were in a martial arts movie.