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  1201: St Simon & St Jude, Castlethorpe, Milton Keynes, England

St Simon & St Jude, Castlethorpe, Milton Keynes, England

Mystery Worshipper: Traveller.
The church: St Simon & St Jude, Castlethorpe, Milton Keynes, England.
Denomination: Church of England.
The building: This is a small, ancient village church with a nave and two side aisles; the aisles are set so wide, they give little or no view of the sanctuary area. I love old churches at the centre of their communities where worship has been offered for centuries, and this one definitely gave me that feeling.
The church: St Simon & St Jude is part of a united benefice with a slightly larger village, Hanslope, a couple of miles away, served by the same priest. Their website is part of a group called "The Anglo-Catholic Parishes of Milton Keynes & Buckinghamshire in the See of Ebbsfleet."
The neighbourhood: A small, ancient village in rural Buckinghamshire; a dormitory area for Milton Keynes, which lies six miles to the south. The village has a pub, school, village hall and general store, and so has retained the elements of a community, rather than becoming a glorified housing estate. The castle in the village name is ancient and remains as ditch and mound close to the church, the wooden castle having decayed long ago.
The cast: Fr Gary Ecclestone, SSC.
The date & time: Wednesday March 1, 2006, 7.30pm.

What was the name of the service?
Ash Wednesday Sung Mass with Ashing.

How full was the building?
Comfortably full – around 40 worshippers. If you were to put another 20 in the nave, it would have been packed. The congregation was a cross section of the local population; young, middle aged and elderly, both male and female.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
Someone held open the inner door and bade me a cheery "hello". I am sure he was really on door duty to keep out the icy draughts.

Was your pew comfortable?
A standard wooden ancient church chair such as are found in many old churches. It was comfortable enough that I didn't need to squirm, nor was I tempted to slumber.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Relaxed and friendly. I arrived with five minutes to spare and had to look around to find a seat with easy access and a view of the chancel and sanctuary. Most people were sitting listening to the quiet organ music. When I did sit down and look around me, I was poked in the shoulder by a woman I had met the day before when carrying out an exploratory visit. Her cheery "You made it, then!" didn't feel at all out of place.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
I was handed their standard service booklet, a leaflet with the particular prayers and responses for Ash Wednesday and a copy of Celebration Hymnal for Everyone.

What musical instruments were played?
A modest two manual and pedal organ was tucked into corner of the south aisle just at the chancel step. The instrument was nicely voiced to allow it to accompany congregational singing without overpowering the people and to play quiet reflective music also. A choir of one unrobed and two robed sopranos led the singing; the congregation joined in more enthusiastically than most.

Did anything distract you?
Very little, actually. I found time to look at the timber roof, the pillars and their capitals, the splendid alabaster memorial in the north corner of the sanctuary, but these were inspiring rather than distracting.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Reverent and formal, serious and subdued. Lips were stiff, but smiling.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
7 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – Fr Gary spoke from the heart and had thought deeply about his sermon. The small size of the church doesn't require amplification, and his voice carried clearly, if quietly. I'll forgive a preacher many things if he has a sense of humour. Fr Gary started his sermon with a topical story: when people are queuing to have a cross in ash applied to the forehead, someone always put their hands up to receive communion!

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Fr Gary took the theme of the sermon from the gospel for the day, Matthew chapter 6: living our Christian life is to be seen by God, not the world. (When you give to the needy, do not let your right hand know what your left hand is doing; ditto for prayer and fasting.) He linked this into Lenten observance and examining our Christian life. I thought he had rumbled me as a Mystery Worshipper when he closed his sermon by saying our journey should not be on a "Ship for Fools" but on a narrowboat. It was quite a good simile, given that the Grand Union canal runs through the parishes, but it made my heart beat fast for a second or two!

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
I wouldn't expect an Ash Wednesday service in a village church to transport me to heaven in the way that, say, a full choral evensong in a magnificent cathedral might. Within the restrictions of the event, then, the part that made me warm to the place came at the end of the administration of the ashes. The young acolytes were the last of the congregation to be marked: Fr Gary then passed the tin of ashes to one of them and asked them to apply an ash cross to his own forehead. It was so discreet that if anyone wasn't looking, they wouldn't have noticed: it felt very much like a small community church doing things as best they can and involving everyone.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Again, nothing in particular struck a jarring note and intruded on the atmosphere of quiet reflection of the service. The evening was bitter cold and freezing outside (hence the door-keeper), and a fan heater at the back was doing its best to supplement the normal heating system. Its noise was a little intrusive. Pathetic, as a candidate for the eternal flames, really.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
The normal service booklet had a text box on the final page encouraging people to stay after the service, even briefly, to greet other worshippers; however, the Ash Wednesday leaflet invited the congregation to depart in prayerful silence. Friendliness won out, and I exchanged a few words with the people around me. Fr Gary was greeting worshippers at the door, and he had obviously noticed the stranger in the midst and had a handful of leaflets, parish magazine, etc. to give to me as I left.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Non-existent. Not surprising at 8.30pm for a solemn midweek service.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – The church and the congregation were very much of the village and were very welcoming. The churchmanship was a touch higher than I am used to, but the insistence on Anglo-Catholicism of their website was absent from the service. The service booklet invited all to the communion rail: "If you take communion in your own church, you are welcome to take it here." The parish magazine – which is run for the two villages and the Methodist church, which speaks of practical ecumenism – reported on pilgrimages to Walsingham, which is a little out of my comfort zone. The magazine also had reports from a men's group which had had a beer and skittles evening; much more my thing!

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, it very much felt like the body of Christ in that place coming together to mark an milestone in the Christian year. I'm very glad I went there.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The friendly welcome and the quiet dignity and solemnity with which the service was conducted.
 
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