|914: St Mary-the-Virgin, Primrose Hill, London|
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Mystery Worshipper: Traveller.
The church: St Mary-the-Virgin, Primrose Hill, London.
Denomination: Church of England.
The building: The building is a mid 19th century brick-built parish church, painted white inside to give a spacious feel. Being it was Lent, the rood, reredos, all the icons, and pictures were veiled. The vestry in the north transept is dedicated to the memory of Percy Dearmer, who was vicar from 1901 to 1915.
The church: St Mary-the-Virgin had a central place in the development of English Use Anglican practice, as this is where Dearmer wrote
The neighbourhood: The church is in an area of London best described as well-to-do suburbia.
The cast: The Rev. Robert Atwell, rector, was the celebrant; the Rev. Paul Nicholson served as deacon; and Mr William Morris preached.
What was the name of the service?
Solemn Eucharist and Sermon with Imposition of Ashes (Ash Wednesday).
How full was the building?
There were about 40-50 people present in a building that would comfortably hold four times as many, but it was not a bad number for a cold February midweek evening.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
A rotund and jolly churchwarden bade me welcome and proffered a booklet specially produced for the service.
Was your pew comfortable?
The main aisle had linked chairs with adequate separation between them, so there was no crunching of elbows. The seating did not irritate me in any way, even by the end of the sermon.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The atmosphere was one of contemplation and quiet, without being totally silent. No introductory music was played, in keeping with the Lenten observance.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
The service started with the litany in procession, so the vicar began with "God the Father," to which the choir responded "Have mercy upon us."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Only the 16-page service booklet was available, but as this contained the collect, readings, and hymns, nothing else was needed really. Inside the front cover were four paragraphs setting out the attitude to Lenten observance in the church, covering the origins of Lenten practice, liturgy in Lent, Lenten array, and the ash.
What musical instruments were played?
A rather fine organ was used to accompany the three congregational hymns. The litany, mass setting, psalm, and anthem were sung a capella.
Did anything distract you?
There was one rather strange woman a few rows in front of me who kept looking around and gesticulating. I did wonder at first whether she might be signing for a deaf person, but there was nobody in the direction she was facing.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Solemn eucharist was advertised and solemn eucharist was delivered. The imposition of the ashes was a central part, so everyone had a smudgy black cross on their forehead for the second half of the service. People did wander out of their pews to pass the peace, but only for a minute or two before solemnity returned and the preparation hymn began.
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?
How easily the observance of Lenten rituals can become an end in themselves, rather than the means by which we purify ourselves to be more in the image of God and to follow Jesus's teaching. This was tied into the Gospel reading from Matthew 6 about not putting on an outward show of praying, fasting, or giving, but doing it in secret where only God knows. If the church can easily misunderstand and fail to react to God's ideas for behaviour, how much more easily can the world outside misunderstand.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
At communion, the choir offered the anthem Lord, for thy tender mercies' sake by Farrant/Hilton. The choir was small (two sopranos, two altos, two tenors, plus a solo bass) but well-schooled, experienced, and controlled. The anthem's message fit well with the theme of the service.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The gospel party processed to a spot about three feet away from where I was sitting. The thurible was swung with enthusiasm. Not being used to incense in my usual church, I fell into a paroxysm of coughing, which I struggled to suppress to avoid drowning out the deacon as he read the gospel.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
The deacon moved in my direction and struck up a conversation. He was not intrusive or over-familiar, but was interested in why a stranger should appear at the service.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Refreshments were non-existent, not surprising for a midweek service. As it was now 9.15pm and I hadn't eaten since breakfast, I wouldn't have been interested in anything but a full-blown meal anyway.
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 The churchmanship was a notch or two above my usual experience, with the liberal use of incense at the gospel and presentation of the elements, and the congregation crossing themselves at the absolution and the blessing, although none of this was done in an affected manner. The building was obviously well-used. The congregation, although weighted towards the retired, spanned all age groups. Most people appeared to know each other, and the church felt friendly and purposeful without being cliquey.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, although glad wasn't really the mood this particular service was trying to convey. The experience was more thought-provoking, as it marked a milestone in the Christian year. I felt the solemnity of the occasion, providing a contrast with Easter in a few weeks' time.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
Probably the care with which the church had been prepared for Lent, with items of devotion covered by veils of unbleached linen printed with symbols of the passion. This is a church that takes its symbolism and preparation seriously.