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786: St Martin, Fenny Stratford, Buckinghamshire, England
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St Martin, Fenny Stratford, Buckinghamshire, England
Mystery Worshipper: Kingsfold.
The church: Parish Church of St Martin, Fenny Stratford, Buckinghamshire, England.
Denomination: Church of England.
The building: St Martin's Church is a handsome looking brick church, sitting next to one of the infamous double roundabouts that dominate the area. Work on the present church began in 1724 at the behest of Dr Browne Willis, a prominent local high churchman and philanthropist, as a memorial and testament to his grandfather Thomas Willis, an eminent physician of his day. It was purposely built on the same site as an earlier chapel dedicated to St Margaret and St Catherine, which was destroyed at the time of the English Reformation. The interior of the church maintains the brickwork outside, and is very attractive. The south aisle, however, is painted over in a rather interesting shade of green, which almost matches the colour of the carpeting in the sanctuary.
The church: The parish of St Martin's rejoices to be under the episcopal care of the Bishop of Ebbsfleet, Fr. Andrew Burnham, and appears to be firmly in the Forward in Faith camp, having passed Resolutions A, B and C. It was interesting to note that while the parish is anti-women priests, they are quite happy to have female servers. It was difficult to make an assessment of the church life, since there were very few notice boards detailing parish activities. However, it did seem that the community was comprised in the main of middle-aged and elderly ladies.
The neighbourhood: I'm sure Fenny Stratford was once a small town, but it has now been swallowed up by the greater conurbation of Milton Keynes. There is not a great deal more than a high street, the church, a station and an enormous retail park complex (though that could have been part of Bletchley or Milton Keynes proper – it was difficult to tell)
The cast: Father Victor Bullock, SSC, SPS.
What was the name of the service?
Parish Mass.

How full was the building?
Very much empty (though it was holiday season). There were about 30 people rattling around in a building that could have seated around 200-250 people. I felt extremely conspicuous!

Did anyone welcome you personally?
A gentleman standing outside the church as I entered said "Good morning", and the same was said by the people at the door who handed me the service book. One lady was extremely helpful when I asked if there was a loo, and took the trouble to show me, rather than just pointing me in the general direction.

Was your pew comfortable?
They were wooden seats set at intervals along a long plank of wood, and were surprisingly comfortable. There was plenty of room in front of the seats either to use the kneeler, or simply to bend over as you sat to pray. The seats were fairly close to each other, but since there were so few of us in the church, this wasn't really an issue.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
There was a quiet chatter as folks talked to each other, but it wasn't intrusive.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
We launched straight into the processional hymn, "Lord enthroned in heavenly splendour," without announcement. The first spoken words were: "In the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
We used a home-produced booklet, "Mass for use in Ordinary Time" and the English Hymnal. We also had a pew leaflet in which the readings were printed, and they came from the Jerusalem Bible.

What musical instruments were played?
The organ was played extremely competently by a young man, who, we were told later, was about to leave to become an organ scholar at Ely Cathedral.

Did anything distract you?
Initially, I was somewhat distracted by the fact that Fr Victor did not turn his radio mike off for the sung Kyrie and Gloria, and so he was clearly heard over the top of everyone else. Fortunately, he sings in tune, and he did turn it off later during the corporately sung parts of the liturgy. I was also rather distracted by two African gentlemen sitting a couple of rows ahead on the other side of the aisle, who were wearing very colourful robes.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
St Martin's website describes their parish mass as being "a form of worship which is unashamedly Anglo-Catholic in ritual and ceremonial", which is a pretty good synopsis. We had bells and smells (though sadly no billowing clouds of incense), and it was very solemn and dignified. Father doffed and put his biretta back on at various intervals, and the servers – who were only two in number, and appeared to be multi-tasking – did their stuff very discreetly and efficiently. I was also intrigued to note that the mass booklet, as well as the usual sit/stand/kneel directions came with instructions as to when to cross yourself, strike your breast in the confession (I confess it, I didn't), and when to bow during the creed.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
9 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
6 – The sermon was read, and was delivered so that it felt more like a reading than a sermon.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Bread, and how it is not just an individual food, but is also corporate – we all share in the one loaf at the eucharist. The taking and eating of the bread during the mass is quick, lasting a moment, but the digestion should last the week and have an impact on our actions. He wound up by telling the story of the British bomber who had been captured by the Germans in World War II, and was being carted off to a prisoner of war camp. He was cold and hungry, and was given bread by a German woman on the train. He had been bombing her town, and she had shared her bread with him in an act of forgiveness. He became a pacifist on the spot. And so sharing bread can be an act of forgiveness.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
I have to say that nothing was particularly heavenly, though I did enjoy the incense when the smell finally reached me.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The choir was very low in number (it was a Sunday in August) and they were trying valiantly, but despite being sat right next to the organ (which was providing a very strong lead) managed to fail to keep time during the hymns. And the Gospel acclamation was painful – the response was fine, but the chanted bit barely started, then fizzled out into nothing. The poor organist just had to hold the chord until it seemed the right place to stop.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
In a word – nothing. Some people stayed in their seats chatting, some wandered out. I stayed sitting for a while, then ambled towards the door, and lurked a little. No one spoke to me, or took my mass booklet back from me and I wandered gently out through the door, apparently unnoticed. Clearly I wasn't as conspicuous as I'd felt, or I was being allowed to remain totally anonymous.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
No mention of drinks was made either in the service or the pew sheets, and I didn't feel inclined to go hunting for any, so I just came home.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 – I enjoyed the liturgical ceremonial, but since I'm not very sympathetic to Forward in Faith, I doubt that this would be somewhere I would want to settle.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Not particularly.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The little boy next door but one to me at the communion rail who said loudly and clearly to his mother after she'd just received the host, "When can I eat one of those?" I had to hide a smile and stifle a giggle, since Fr was waiting for me to ready myself to receive the host.
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