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1836: Sacred Heart, Stopsley, Luton, England
Sacred Heart, Stopsley, Luton, England
Mystery Worshipper: Miss Marple.
The church: Sacred Heart, Stopsley, Luton, England.
Denomination: Roman Catholic, Diocese of Northampton.
The building: The church was built in 1950 and extended in 1960. It's a simple, symmetrical A-frame stone structure, warm and well laid out. The interior features a barrel ceiling and colonnaded side aisles and a simple altar backed by a crucifix. There are lovely traditional stations of the cross, and a well used side altar with a statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and a prayer petitions board. Soundproof glass partitions off a family/child area.
The church: This seems to be a vibrant parish community. In addition to prayer and Rosary groups, there is a Legion of Mary, Union of Catholic Mothers and a parents and toddlers group, all underscoring the parish's commitment to children. Youngsters preparing for first holy communion leave church at the beginning of each mass and return at the offertory, having looked at the scriptures and theme of the day with volunteer instructors.
The neighbourhood: Stopsley is a conglomeration of shops, takeaways, restaurants and houses in the northeast of Luton. The post World War II period saw a rapid deployment of houses made of sheet metal, earning the area the rather unflattering label Tintown. Most of these houses have now been resurfaced in brick or pebbledash. Luton itself, about 30 miles north of London, was known for many years as a centre for hat-making and Vauxhall motorcar production. Currently a major regeneration scheme is underway. As a first time visitor to Luton, I would say that the church seemed to be in the rather upmarket end of town.
The cast: The Revd Chris Whitehouse, parish priest.
The date & time: Saturday, 17 October 2009, 6.30pm.

What was the name of the service?
Vigil Mass.

How full was the building?
Mostly full, about 280 people, comprising a wide age range with a large number of family groups.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
Nobody welcomed me personally before or during the mass.

Was your pew comfortable?
I had lots of space around me in the front pew of one of the side aisles; a good position for taking notes unobserved.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quiet and reverential, with very little talking.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good evening. Today is World Mission Sunday."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
No prayer or hymn books, but some key psalm responses and antiphons were usefully printed in the parish newsletter.

What musical instruments were played?
There was no music or singing at the mass.

Did anything distract you?
The priest faced eastward for the eucharistic prayer. More on this later.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The style of worship was on the whole warm, friendly and informal – except for the eucharistic prayer, which was at odds with the rest of the mass. I thought the eastward facing position lent a feeling of alienation rather than inclusiveness.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
9 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
6 – The priest was an accomplished speaker with an easy style. However, a repeated motif in the homily was "no cross, no crown," which did, I thought, lead to an over-emphasis on suffering rather than resurrection and left a sense of gloom over the words spoken. Overall the sermon was disjointed in content but smooth in style.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The sermon started with the question: "What have Star Trek, the next generation, and Jesus got in common?" This led to a reflection on the disciples' need for time to grow into their role, and linked nicely with new parents needing time to gain confidence in their role.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The children returned from their liturgy of the word and fed back their reflections – which were, in the end, a more effective witness to gospel than any homily ever could be.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
When the priest turned his back to the people at the central part of the eucharist and conducted a private service between himself and his God, to the exclusion of the community. The moments when he turned toward the people made him look like a revolving door.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
There was an obvious rush to the car park, which was overcrowded with double parking. This didn’t allow leisure for talking after the service.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
None available.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
2 – I found the priest turning his back to the congregation very disturbing and unhelpful.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, the children’s reflections were beautiful and straight from the heart.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The priest turning his back on the congregation as if he were trying to include one bit of pre-Vatican II liturgy in an otherwise normal Sunday mass.
 
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