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|1829: St Matthew's,
Matthew's, Northampton, England.
Church of England, Diocese
In the words of John Betjeman: "When I came into this church
for the first time ... I wanted to go down on my knees ... and
thank God for the beauty which man has made to the glory of
God in St Matthew's." The church was built in 1893 in the French
Gothic style, on land donated by a local brewing magnate (perhaps
to save him from his sins – although he died before the
church was completed). The interior is a strange mix of high
church and Starship Enterprise. The high altar and reredos are
of moulded polished alabaster. There are some notable works
of art, including a Madonna and Child by the famed 20th century
modernist sculptor Henry Moore, and a nine-foot-high surrealist
Crucifixion in oils by Graham Sutherland, hailed as the most
important post-World War II painter in England. Benjamin Britten's
cantata Rejoice in the Lamb was commissioned for the
50th anniversary of the consecration of St Matthew's.
St Matthew's approach to the liturgy is, quoting from their
website, "firmly rooted within Anglicanism but with a definite
Catholic expression." But they are not merely (again quoting
from their website) "a bolt-hole for pietistic liturgical
escapism." Indeed, everything about the place suggests
a thriving community at work, from the massive assortment of
paraphernalia and booklets at the entrance to a children's play
area on the north side. They conduct a special outreach to the
lonely, infirm and housebound. They are enthusiastic supporters
of the arts. Youth programs are plentiful, including Scouts
and a Mums and Tots group.
Northampton is a large market town in the East Midlands about
70 miles northwest of London. Formerly a major leather and shoemaking
centre, only the high-end firm of Church's survives, known to
well-dressed men worldwide as makers of quality footwear. St
Matthew's is situated in a leafy suburb of the town, with large
Edwardian houses to one side and attractive Victorian terraces
to the other. Opposite the church is a row of shops –
I wonder if there is another church anywhere in England with
as many takeaway and kebab shops on its doorstep.
The Revd Nicholas Setterfield, vicar, presided. The Revd Canon
Martin Warner, canon treasurer of St Paul's Cathedral, London,
was the preacher.
The date & time:
St Matthew's Day, 21 September 2009, 7.30pm.
What was the name of the service?
Patronal Festival Sung Mass and Dedication of the St Matthew
How full was the building?
About 90 or so in the congregation, but it looked reasonably full at that.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
There was a lady who was handing out a beautifully prepared
order of service. Unfortunately she seemed deep in conversation
with someone else, so I had to let out a stage cough to attract
her attention. She simply handed me the booklet whilst carrying
on with her conversation. Another lady, who was handing out
a different sheet, was much more welcoming.
Was your pew comfortable?
Very comfortable, though we stood for the great majority of the service.
How would you describe the pre-service
A murmur of quiet chatter and the sound of the bells playing the tunes of the hymns that were about to be sung in the service. Very classy.
What were the exact opening words of the
"Let us proceed in peace" (though the order of service
had "Let us go forth in peace" – the only discrepancy
in an otherwise splendid booklet). Then the organ erupted into
a mighty introduction to the first hymn, a banner was raised
aloft, and a large party began the great procession.
What books did the congregation use during the
A special order of service for the day and a loose sheet with
some of the new music. The order of service was very much like
a script – every single word was printed (apart from four
minutes of thank-yous at the beginning of the service and another
three minutes of thank-yous at the end – most intrusive),
and included indications of who was to do what such as All,
Choir, Presider, Deacon, Reader, Leader, CC1 and CC2 (Concelebrant
1 and Concelebrant 2). It was like being in O-level English
Literature class again, everyone with their heads down in their
copies whilst teacher read things out from the front.
What musical instruments were played?
A very fine organ dating from 1895, an opus of the Walker firm
of London. The pipes sit an an angle in their chambers so that
they may speak not only across the choir but also down the nave.
The organ was overhauled in 1971 and fully restored in 2006
by the Harrison & Harrison firm of Durham. It was played
(we discovered in the second set of thank-yous) by the organist
of Peterborough Cathedral.
Did anything distract you?
The servers, who had been waiting in the Lady chapel, moved
elsewhere just before the service began. They did this by passing
the high altar, turning their backs to it, and bowing to the
nave altar. The very ornate high altar was laden with candles,
and by contrast the nave altar looked like an Ikea kitchen unit
and was barely visible. So to us in the pews, it looked like
the servers were bowing to us! Very, very odd. There were also
five very noise aeroplanes that passed overhead, one just as
the peace was being exchanged!
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or
Stiff but fluid and high church. Modern language with odd bits
extracted from Rome, such as the Orate Fratres. All
mashed together with the modern (a voice that teaches us the
secrets of holiness, a breeze that strengthens and refreshes,
a fire that sears our hearts in love).
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
5 A ... very ... mannered ... delivery ... wringing every
ounce of meaning out of each ... and ... every ... word – ideal,
I guess, for the very live acoustics of St Paul's Cathedral.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon
He spoke of how art can be used in the service of the gospel,
referring to the new sculpture that was being dedicated as well
as to the fine art works already in place. He also talked about
the importance of the eucharist and the character of Matthew
as apostle and evangelist.
Which part of the service was like being in
The whole liturgy was very elegant and beautifully carried off.
The incense was hazy but not foggy, the servers moved inconspicuously,
and the vicar has a very beautiful voice, both in speaking and
And which part was like
being in... er... the other place?
I was disappointed, though, by the new artwork being dedicated
today. The sculpture of St Matthew sadly didn't live up to Canon
Warner's vivid and gripping description of the apostle –
it rather portrays him in the manner of an Edwardian civic dignitary.
The choir were also dedicating a newly commissioned mass setting,
Northampton Eucharist by David Bednall. The piece seemed
far too difficult for them (whether it was a good piece was
frankly impossible to judge). One or two of the men sang so
loudly that you could rarely hear the tune, but when you could
it was as sour as vinegar. Luckily the organ generally drowned
them out, sparing us from most of the noise, but in the Sanctus,
when the choir sang alone, it really did sound like a gramophone
record slowly running out of power. I had come expecting a superb
artistic experience but was very unpleasantly surprised.
What happened when you
hung around after the service looking lost?
Food and drink had been set out at the back of the church, and
everyone headed straight to it.
How would you describe the after-service
A very fine spread. Some people valiantly tried to listen to
the virtuoso organ piece at the end of the service, but the
noise of clinking glasses and the chatter over the cakes soon
drowned that out!
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 The liturgy was nicely carried off and satisfied the
Did the service make you feel glad to be a
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The heady and well-executed mix of Anglican and Catholic in
this superb liturgy.
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