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1564: St George's, Venice, Italy
St George's, Venice
Mystery Worshipper: Lavender Waters.
The church: St George's, Venice, Italy.
Denomination: Church of England, Diocese in Europe.
The building: The church, which started life as a warehouse, was given to the diocese in 1892. It has a white stone exterior, with a bas relief of St George and the dragon above a fine pair of bronze doors. Inside it is rectangular, with a gallery containing an organ at the liturgical west end. The altar is hard up against the eastern wall. The interior is painted in a couple of shades of grey, which, although rather tatty, is just right as the light coming in is so bright. Several of the windows have stained memorial glass in them, commemorating the likes of a former provost of Eton and the poet Robert Browning. There are plaques let into the walls detailing various expatriates, and a war memorial with crossed Union Jack and Stars and Stripes over a memorial book and a brass shell case. This is one of the few churches in Venice which is locked when there is not a service in progress. We went past several times over the course of three days and it was shut every time.
The church: The church serves a small expatriate community and any English-speaking tourists who happen upon it.
The neighbourhood: The history of Venice, called by many the most beautiful city in the world, is well known. Since the 19th century, however, the city has fallen into decline, with the old palazzi, churches and other architectural treasures kept up primarily for the sake of tourists against the constant threat of flood damage and decay. Despite that, though, the city has not lost its soul. St George's is right next to the Grand Canal and very close to the Accademia Bridge. The day I was there it was well situated for observing the Vogalonga boat race, being very close to the finishing point.
The cast: The Revd John-Henry Bowden, chaplain.
The date & time: Pentecost Sunday, 11 May 2008, 10.30am.

What was the name of the service?
Holy Eucharist.

How full was the building?
With a squeeze, the building might seat 120, but there were only about 40 of us present. Craning my neck to count more precisely would have been bad manners.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
No. The sidespersons were so taken up with collating their leaflets that they didn't speak to anyone. Nobody spoke when I had sat down. We followed the 1662 liturgy and so there was no exchange of peace.

Was your pew comfortable?
The pew was adequate, but the kneeling bench, upholstered in ginger vinyl, was absolute torture, being oddly spaced and very hard. The faded cushion at the altar rail was, in contrast, blissfully soft and springy.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quiet and well behaved.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning and welcome."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
Book of Common Prayer and the New English Hymnal. In my prayer book, at the spot where prayers are asked for the Queen, someone had written in the names of the presidents of the United States and the Republic of Italy.

What musical instruments were played?
Organ, played slowly and deliberately.

Did anything distract you?
As the sermon began, a woman shot forward to the pulpit and moved a vase (which looked like a brass shell case) of flowers away from the chaplain, as it might have got dislodged had he become oratorically overheated (which he didn't). Outside the church, spectators cheered as the Vogalonga boat racers crossed the finish line, and for a brief and insane moment I imagined they might have been cheering the sermon.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Stiff-upper-lip, middle of the road, middle aged, middle class. Much like an English village church 40 years ago, even down to the flowers. This felt just right, being abroad. No slip-ups, not even on the organ. The celebrant faced eastward and wore a fairly modern red chasuble. There were no servers. Five enormous candlesticks stood in the sanctuary, and I spent some time wondering what the fate of the sixth might have been, as five seemed so incomplete. As the service progressed, I had a bit of fun trying to decide who in the congregation was a regular and who was a tourist, and if the latter, where they were from.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
10 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – Chaplain Bowden was cut from the mould of a school chaplain – hearty, wholesome and sensible, with nothing too indigestible concealed in his message.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Be grateful for and use the gifts we have been given. We should not envy the different gifts given to others, but get on and make the best of ours.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
It was a very hot Venetian Sunday, and the building felt cool and peaceful. And here I was far from England, but the whole experience evoked memories of being a child at home. I thought of various dear departed bastions of the Church of England. Whether such nostalgia points to heaven, though, I would hesitate to say.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Perhaps the fact that the regulars were too busy collating their leaflets to speak to strangers. There was a rather sniffy italicised note in the leaflet telling me that €5.00 was not enough to put in the collection. Had that been all I had to give, I would have felt inadequate.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I followed the flow and ended up talking to the chaplain, who was very sociable. Nobody else in the congregation said a word to me.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was cold water and orange juice served in disposable plastic cups, accompanied by crisps and biscuits. Just right for a hot morning.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – If I lived in Venice, I'm sure I would settle here. I'm equally sure the regulars would welcome me. I felt their reticence might have stemmed from their knowing that only one visitor in a thousand might ever join them as a permanent member of the congregation, so why bother?

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The cool calm in the middle of a very crowded city
.
 
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