|674: St John Chrysostom, Victoria Park, Manchester, England|
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Mystery Worshipper: The Irregular.
The church: St John Chrysostom, Victoria Park, Manchester, England.
Denomination: Church of England.
The building: The original church was built in the 1870s and rebuilt in 1906 following a major fire. Back then its purpose was to serve the rich merchants and industrialists that lived in the gated enclave of Victoria Park and its style reflects these opulent beginnings. The service sheet describes its interior thus: "Significant features in the church are the oak panelling of the chancel, the marvellous Hill organ, the interesting set of Burlison and Grylls windows and the lovely Stations of the Cross" and tells us that the "distinctive reredos painting" is by Graeme Willson. All the claims have some substance although "distinctive" is probably a very carefully chosen word for the reredos art.
The church: It's clear that Chrysostom's pride themselves on being a very inclusive community. In keeping with this ethos there are a number of guest congregations who also use the premises and representatives from two of these, the Korean Methodist Church and Manchester Metropolitan Community Church, participated in the service.
The neighbourhood: Nowadays, Victoria Park is a multi-cultural community with the local halls of residence adding a significant student population. The neighbourhood is now largely devoid of the affluence that characterised its early years, but echoes of this past remain in some wonderful examples of Victorian architecture. Chrysostom's itself can claim some note in this regard and just around the corner lies the famous Victoria Baths, which even at the height of their neglect were still sufficiently beautiful to lift even the most jaded of hearts.
The cast: The clergy of Manchester diocese and beyond had turned out in force for this anniversary mass. The sermon was preached by the former Archdeacon of Rochdale, Fr. Mark Dalby. The principal celebrant was the Bishop of Hulme and I counted 16 additional con-celebrants including the visiting Bishop of Namibia. Supplementing this, we had the pleasure of numerous deacons, servers and acolytes, a thurifer, a full choir and numerous lay participants. Needless to say the stage was a little crowded with players and the various processing took on the appearance of a Red Arrows display event (though sadly not a wisp of red or blue smoke issued from the thurible).
What was the name of the service?
Holy mass on the occasion of the 125th anniversary of the consecration of the parish church.
How full was the building?
Full to the gunnels. The home congregations were joined and somewhat outnumbered by members of neighbouring churches, former members of Chrysostom's, even more clergy (who had chosen not to con-celebrate) and representatives from the local Islamic community.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
A polite nod as we were handed a service sheet was about the extent of it, but to be fair they were somewhat overwhelmed by the floods of visitors pouring in, so personalised welcomes weren't really appropriate or required.
Was your pew comfortable?
Beautiful dark wood pews were the order of the day and their simple but solid design made for a reasonably pleasant sitting experience. No comfy padding, but by the same token no design flaws that dug into your lower back etc.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
There was general noise associated with getting that many people into the church, but it wasn't unduly rowdy. A couple of annoying women in the row behind us struck up gossiping ("ooh there's so and so!" etc.) as soon as they arrived and continued on and off throughout the mass.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Wa wa wa emimimo, wa wa wa alagbara, wao wao wao." Sorry? You don't speak Yoruba, you say? Helpfully the service sheet informed us that this Nigerian sung prayer invited the Holy Spirit to come upon the gathering.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Everything was contained in a bespoke service pamphlet and this single source moved us effortlessly though the proceedings.
What musical instruments were played?
The apparently noteworthy Hill organ was used throughout. The choir were in fine voice and fell on the nice side of informal-chaotic. The sense of a slightly haphazard coming together was also reflected in their garb, which ranged from choir robe and medal, through undergraduate gown to general business suits. No doubt this reflected the backgrounds of the various choristers, but a more co-ordinated and consistent approach would have looked so much better.
Did anything distract you?
Cling-film. Specifically the not so judicious ripping off of cling-film from the buffet platters laid out in the back section of the church. It started towards the end of the service when every conceivable moment of noise, including congregational responses, was judged (wrongly) to be sufficient cover for another plate of sandwiches to be uncovered ready for the amazing spread that was laid on after the mass.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
I was promised a tat-fest as an inducement to attend; I was not disappointed and I have to say it was all carried off with aplomb. The thurifer was superb and was of the standard that made even the most complex of swings and twirls look smooth and effortless. Chrysostom's clearly take their incense seriously (rumour has it they even blend their own), but I have to say more perfume and less fog would be my personal taste. The formality of the liturgy was nicely supplemented by creative inclusions that reflected the church's broad base and this gave the mass a real flavour of the character of the church.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
4 Unfortunately there was no amplification and the preacher just didn't have the projection necessary to make himself heard in what is a fair size church. Resultantly the slightest happy gurgle from a baby drowned him out completely.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
In a nutshell? Ah therein lies the rub. The major difficulty with this sermon was that it didn't so much have no point, as about 20 or 30. We meandered through the history of the church, the purpose of the world church, differing interpretations of the gospel, the Anglo-Catholic tradition, the parish church in a multi-cultural setting, Chrysostom's emphasis on hospitality, mission statements, the balance of different congregations, the need for the CofE to place greater emphasis on the local rather than the central and much, much more. All of which linked to the purpose of the service and were fine in and of themselves, but seemed randomly strung together with a distinct lack of focus.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
We started with a sung prayer in Yoruba, heard the lesson read in Korean, had the gospel proclamation delivered in countless other languages and finished with a blessing in Oshikwanyama. You couldn't ask for a better reminder of the global body of Christ. We may have come to commemorate the anniversary of a building being consecrated, but in truth and to this church's credit, we celebrated so much more.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Towards the end the entire congregation processed around the outside of the building while singing "All Creatures of Our God and King". A nice idea, but the numbers involved made it a bit slow and cumbersome, which in turn led to a tailing off of momentum and enthusiasm towards the back of the train. Accordingly, I have to confess that I did feel a bit daft as a bus queue looked on bemused as we shuffled though the muddy church grounds in the pitch black, half-heartedly murmuring a hymn. The sense of the faintly ludicrous wasn't helped by the front end of the procession crashing into the tail before it had fully cleared the church doors, particularly as inevitably the two contingents had now inadvertently transformed the hymn into a canon.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
There was really no point trying to look lost or waiting to be approached as the visitors significantly out-numbered the home team. Everyone just dove into the buffet and merged and mingled at will.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
A fine spread had been prepared and seemed to be being heartily enjoyed by those who were up to the rugby scrum that resulted from so many people trying to access so few tables. I made it as far as a glass of orange juice and retired gracefully.
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 It's hard to judge a church on the basis of an event such as this, but their impressive stance on diversity and inclusiveness came across very naturally and I found that very appealing.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, and particularly glad of the variety of traditions we enjoy in the church.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The number of con-celebrants and the apparent lack of correlation between strength of blessing and resulting strength of the exceedingly "thin" communion wine.