|566: St Cuthberts, Earls Court, London|
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Mystery Worshipper: Sarum Sleuth.
The church: St Cuthbert's, Philbeach Gardens, Earl's Court, London SW5.
The building: A large red brick Victorian building of 1884 by Roumieu-Gough. It has sumptuous furnishings on a huge scale dating from the end of the nineteenth century. At this time the church was definitely one of the London Anglo-Catholic shrines, renowned for exotic ceremonial and visits from Mr Kensit of the Protestant Truth Society. Fortunately, no re-ordering has been allowed beyond an unobtrusive nave altar and the atmosphere remains largely unchanged.
The church: As this was a special service for a particular organisation, I really can't comment on the regular congregation. The members of the Anglo-Catholic History Society, who made up the bulk of the congregation, left me with a feeling of distinct unease. Mostly male, and obsessed with the niceties of Fortescue judging by some of the snippets of conversation I overheard.
The neighbourhood: Very much middle-class Earl's Court, set in quite an attractive residential street.
The cast: The celebrant was the Rev. Perry Butler, the deacon the Rev. John Vine (the vicar) and the preacher the Rev. William Davage, Librarian of Pusey House, Oxford.
What was the name of the service?
High Mass of Thanksgiving to commemorate the centenary of the death of Fr. Robert Dolling.
How full was the building?
About 50 people in a church that could easily hold five times that number.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
A visiting priest informed me that my light (on my camera!) was on, but otherwise no human contact till the peace. There was nobody dispensing books.
Was your pew comfortable?
It was a chair, moderately comfortable, with ample space for kneeling.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
There were some fascinating conversations being conducted sotto voce in somewhat camp tones about the doings of Forward in Faith, as well as the usual comments on ceremonial one expects in a London shrine.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"In the name of the Father..." But the service was prefaced by a 10-minute talk on the life of Fr. Dolling.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Hymn sheet, English Hymnal for the propers (original edition thankfully) and mass booklet: basically Common Worship, traditional language.
What musical instruments were played?
Organ. The choir were very loud and dominated by the top line. A Viennese setting was used (Haydn I think). Good congregational singing.
Did anything distract you?
The devotional practices of some of the congregation were rather less restrained than I am normally accustomed to. I was rather surprised when everyone stood for the Gloria, and it was sung to Merbecke! But the comings and goings of the thurifer were in a class of their own.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The style was very much a toned down version of "Ritual Notes" Anglo-Catholicism. Quite dignified and certainly not too fussy.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
5 Although several other members of the congregation were in raptures about the sermon, I found it to be dry and reactionary Anglo-Catholic hagiography.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The life and witness of Robert Dolling. His work as a slum priest seemed curiously understated, and more was made of his part in the fight for Catholic worship. I find this rather curious, as Dolling was actually a red-hot socialist, a fact that I suspect most of this congregation would prefer to forget.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The building and furnishings are wonderful, and the worship itself was dignified and reverent.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Some of the top notes of the choir were pretty wild and some of the other worshippers gave me the creeps!
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Not a lot to begin with, but once the red wine began to kick in I became involved in some interesting, if slightly off the wall conversations. I spoke to Fr. Vine, the vicar, who was very pleasant.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
No caffeine available but plenty of very acceptable wine.
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
6 Not really my style of church, although I could live with it. To be fair, things may well be rather different on a normal Sunday.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Unfortunately not, and the assembled multitude makes me seriously wonder about the future for Anglo-Catholicism.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?