|645: St Martin's, Albany Road, Cardiff, Wales|
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Mystery Worshipper: Old Trout.
The church: St Martin's, Albany Road, Roath, Cardiff, Wales.
Denomination: The Church in Wales.
The building: St Martin's is a huge red brick barn of a church, squatting beside the pavement of a busy road, unpromising and even faintly evangelical-looking from the outside. It was consecrated in 1901, but lost its roof and nearly all of its glass (except for one window of green loo window genre) to enemy action in 1941. It was partially rebuilt and reconsecrated in 1955. Once through the door, a revelation of space and light coupled with a goodly whiff of incense met my senses. The building contains some very striking devotional artwork, of which the 1950s Stations of the Cross, fashioned from aluminium, and the altar furnishings in the Holy Cross Chapel really stood out. There is no room for a clerical presence behind the high altar, which is still used, and is under a striking window depicting Christ in Majesty (and a voluminous and tastefully draped red robe). The wall behind the altar has modern gilt lettering on it.
The church: The congregation is growing, and young families are happily much in evidence. The weekly leaflet indicated that there had been 81 weekday communicants, and 100 Sunday communicants in the past week. Such a ratio would be a triumph where I come from.
The neighbourhood: The district seems up-and-coming, with lots of small independent high street shops that are a sure sign of advancing trendiness, including a purveyor of wholefoods. As one might expect in Wales there were chapels of all species lining my slightly circuitous route to St Martin's. Local housing was predominantly three-up, two-down late Victorian terraces.
The cast: The preacher and celebrant was the assistant curate, the Rev. Professor Thomas Watkin. The leaflet provided the crucial information sought by any self-respecting cloth-moth: where the vicar was, and what he was doing away from the parish (at ordinations in Chichester).
What was the name of the service?
How full was the building?
There were probably about 120 people in the building, though it seemed less than half full.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
A man in a cassock greeted me and handed me books and paperwork, then a woman shot over and welcomed me with great fervour. They were all very genuine, and free from oozing syrupy-ness.
Was your pew comfortable?
It was a chair and it was quite ghastly. For a start, it was very small and my backside isn't. The rows were too close, though I'm not abnormally tall. The bookshelf was inadequate for the amount of equipment provided. Lastly, the chair was freestanding, and the floor (composite pseudo-parquet) had been highly polished, so the chair shot off in a different direction each time I stood up or sat down. The kneeler however, was of a far more luxuriant texture.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quiet whispering or muffled squeaking depending upon age of source.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"In the name of the Father, and of the Son..."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The Book of Common Prayer, The Church in Wales (1984); The New English Hymnal.
What musical instruments were played?
Organ and robed adult choir. The choir, and indeed servers' cottas were startlingly white and well ironed, so much so that the church should be sponsored by Lever Bros. Had the day been any brighter, the albedo effect might have been just too much and given me a migraine.
Did anything distract you?
The servers' cassocks needed attention as several were of mid-calf length. I was unsure as to whether this was a local fashion, so ubiquitous was the problem, or whether there is a dearth of ladies able to adjust hems in the parish. In addition, they were all covered in wax, and it was not at all evident from the expert way they wheeled and glided quite how so much wax had flown through the air. Or maybe it wasn't wax at all...
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Quiet and reverential cambro-catholicism. There was no lace or mincing and posturing. The celebrant sat on a great-auntish style dining chair at the top of the steps down to the nave during the liturgy of the word, with the MC perched on a matching coffee table beside him, but so close that he must have made the poor man twitchy. The rest of the celebration was eastward-facing, but this did not detract from it in any way. The celebrant, in his green-and-gold chasuble blended beautifully with the altar cloth and the gilded script on the wall and gave me a nostalgic yet numinous frisson of the timelessness of what he was doing. The liturgy used did not venture into inclusive language. The wine was white, and purificators conspicuous by their absence. This latter point was at odds with the evident love of laundry evident elsewhere.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Fr. Thomas took the Old Testament reading of the day as his text and produced a learned, pertinent and accessible sermon. Drawing on the composition of the world cup final (that being the day), he told us that he was proud to be a European, and had been momentarily taken aback when he read in the US press that Britain was held to be one of the least racially tolerant nations in Europe, we who had stood alone against Hitler's national socialism, Mussolini's fascist dictatorship, etc. We were reminded that as part of Europe, we had to share not only our moral triumphs, but also the national tragedies of others, to share in culpability, that we could not pick the good bits for our own self advancement, and then leave the more regretful bits for the others; that we could apply this analogy in our own lives and witness. It was strong stuff.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The presence of a shaft of sunlight shining down from a high window, illuminating the smoke in the sanctuary throughout the mass. The singing: we had three of my favourite hymns, and the creed (the latter a bit of a rarity now for me). The choir were supporting the congregation and not treating us to a pompous concert.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The communion hymns were certainly devotional, but also dreary and unfamiliar, judging from the rendition they got. It was lovely that there were so many children there, but disappointing to see that they went out of the church after the first verse of the opening hymn, and did not return until communion. It was clear that the over-fives did not feel that the the mass was their concern when they returned. They had missed the most awesome and image-laden parts, and perhaps as a consequence, behaved as though totally detached from proceedings when they returned. Many of the bigger children could be trained as servers, though to be fair much of the devotional hardware looked big and heavy. There was no boat child, but evidently plenty of short cassocks to be filled. Errant small boys enjoy fire! This comment is not meant to be taken as a criticism of the children at St Martins, or of their behaviour.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I was surrounded by friendly people before I had even got off my knees. They told me all about their church, and asked me about mine.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There were no refreshments of any sort, though I was told that coffee was served once a month. Several people had that gasping-for-a-gin look about them, which gave a homely touch. What was striking was that nobody was in a hurry to leave, despite the fact that no beverages were on offer.
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 It would be so exciting to be part of a growing catholic congregation, but I live too far away.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. There were people of all ages and from all income brackets here. The church is spotless and loved and the whole of the mass was uplifting and refreshing.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The celebrant, facing eastwards in the act of consecration against that backdrop: the old and the new melting together, real holy mysteries.