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599: Hertford College Chapel, Oxford, England
Other reports | Comment on this report
Mystery Worshipper: The Nazarene.
The church: Hertford College Chapel, Oxford, England.
Denomination: Although the chapel is Anglican, it serves the whole college community of around 400 students. It also offers a Catholic mass each term as well as other less "denominational" services such as a weekly compline.
The building: The interior is very efficient and almost spartan: clean lines with clear glass. It has simple dark oak stalls, laid out in collegiate style with pews facing each other
The neighbourhood: The main quadrangle is beautiful; stone buildings covered in deep red ivy. The college is famed for its mock-venetian bridge which links its two main areas.
The cast: The Rev. Simon Oliver, chaplain. The sermon was delivered by Canon Dr Jeffrey John, canon residentiary at Southwark Cathedral, London.
What was the name of the service?
Choral Evensong.

How full was the building?
It was about one-quarter full with around 30 in the congregation and 25 or so in the choir. I get the feeling that they are used to more people as there were a large number of pew sheets ready.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
I was welcomed by a student who handed me all the paraphernalia required to steer me through the service. I was not, however, greeted verbally, which was a shame.

Was your pew comfortable?
It was comfortable as pews get. The kneelers are foam, covered in a felt-like material, with no firm support underneath. I sank like a ship when I knelt for the prayers!

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
It was quite quiet. I arrived 20 minutes before the service started whilst the choir were still rehearsing. There was a great deal of disturbance as they all trooped out and the chapel was readied for the service. I did feel rather in the way. It would make sense to keep the congregation out whilst all this took place.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Welcome to Hertford College chapel. We begin the service by singing our first hymn, number 435 – 'Glorious things of thee are spoken, Zion, city of our God.'"

What books did the congregation use during the service?
We used Common Praise. We were also given an Order of Service and pew sheet, both of which had been produced in-house. The Order of Service was rather badly laid out with a few typos but the pew sheet, containing the readings and full texts of the choral anthems, was very good indeed.

What musical instruments were played?
The organ, which was mostly in-tune but not very powerful, was led by the choir and a terrifically energetic and invigorating young conductor.

Did anything distract you?
It was a little on the dark side. Looking up I could see some fluorescent lighting on the edge of the stalls but this had been switched off. The chapel could be a very atmospheric, reflective place, but something was lacking. I think it was the lighting.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Slightly-trembling-upper-lip. A straight evensong service with quite diffuse, badly ordered prayers and a mismatched psalm style.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
11 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – The sermon was well delivered and impassioned but, unfortunately, the congregation were gathered at the far end of the chapel. When the congregation is this small it would surely make sense to encourage them to sit near the preacher.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The nature of love: a simple and effective address.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
As often with Oxbridge colleges it was the choir. They appeared more informal than at many colleges, wearing academic gowns over normal clothes, but they delivered a very passionate and lively rendition of the canticles by Howells. An equal amount of passion was applied to an anthem by MacMillan but this was less successful as it was unaccompanied.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The psalm. I think the congregation were supposed to sing the responses. We had the music on the pew sheet, but nobody sung. I tried once but everyone looked at me strangely so I stopped. Why have a responsorial psalm in traditional choral evensong? A bit of a shame.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I was swiftly moved along to an impressively book-lined room in the college for refreshments.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Sherry and orange juice.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, in a reassuring rather than invigorating way.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
As always at Oxbridge , the choir shone and the liturgy sat still for a hundred years...
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