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|2491: St Mary’s,
Newnham Murren, England
St Mary’s, Newnham Murren, England.
A redundant church, now in the care of the Churches
Conservation Trust. The service I attended was put on by
Orthodox Church Outside Russia, Diocese of Great Britain and
It dates from the 12th century and was constructed of Norman
flint. Its style is characteristic of both the historical period
and the geographical region, except that the surrounding village
has disappeared Newnham Murren now consists of only a
single farm! Inside, there is no heating and no electricity,
and the only light comes from dozens of candles. The building
was restored in the 19th century, at which time many of its
original fittings were removed.
The UK Mission of ROCOR, quoting from their website, wishes
"to restore a genuinely 'Western Orthodoxy' to the British Isles."
It has two stated aims: "to return Orthodoxy to the West" and
"to return Western Orthodox theology and liturgy to the life
of the wider Orthodox Church." To this end, they "reach
out warmly to Christians of other denominations, and invite
them to come home to the Orthodox Church." The Western
Rite is intended to attract those who "have been deterred
from becoming Orthodox by the prospect of having to worship
in ways that are very unfamiliar to them." It offers a
"liturgy developed by the saints and martyrs who founded
and sustained the churches in the West up until the Great Schism."
The website quotes St John Maximovitch: "The West was Orthodox
for a thousand years, and her venerable liturgy is far older
than any of her heresies."
The church occupies a picturesque setting near the River Thames,
just south of the Chilterns. There are more farm animals than
people. If you visit after dark, be sure to pack wellies, thermals,
hi-vis, and a torch; the church is down a muddy and fairly well-manured
farm track, then across a reasonably smooth but unlit churchyard
lawn. The 12th century architects didn't plan for car parks.
Vespers was sung in the presence of His Grace Bishop Jerome
of Manhattan, Vicar Bishop of the Diocese of Eastern America
and New York, Vicar Bishop of the Western Rite Vicariate, and
Deputy Secretary of the Synod of Bishops. The sanctuary party
consisted of priest, deacon (or subdeacon or master of ceremonies
I'm not sure) and cantor, none of whom were named.
The date & time:
Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Thursday,
14 February 2013, 6.00pm (it actually began about 6.45pm).
What was the name of the service?
How full was the building?
In such a small space, two dozen of us felt like a very good
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes, warmly despite the fact that I was obviously not Bishop
Jerome, whose delayed arrival was awaited by the congregation
Was your pew comfortable?
It being customary to stand during Orthodox services, the narrow
wooden pews were redundant.
How would you describe the pre-service
Quiet anticipation. There was some gentle socialising, followed
by communal singing of Taizé chants, led by the chap who I gather
would be the Anglican vicar if the building still belonged to
the Church of England.
What were the exact opening words of the
"O God, make speed to save us."
What books did the congregation use during the
Booklet for vespers; photocopied sheet music and words for psalms.
What musical instruments were played?
None, but who needs instruments when there is such fine singing by congregation and cantor?
Did anything distract you?
Flashes of artificial light from people taking photographs or
using torches to try to make out the very small print of the
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip,
happy clappy, or what?
Byzantine with a British twist: English-language throughout,
bar the odd Kyrie eleison, and a couple of Marian hymns
added, which would be very familiar to anyone from an Anglo-
or Roman Catholic background. I particularly enjoyed the deacon
(if that's who he was) walking quietly down the aisle during
the Magnificat as he censed the people (or was it the building?).
Exactly how long was the
No sermon: His Grace had apparently already strained his voice
during his busy schedule earlier in the day.
Which part of the service
was like being in heaven?
Incense, the flickering light of candles, traditional chant,
a building more or less bare of modern accretions. If not quite
heaven, it gave as good a sense as one is likely to experience
of what worship must have been like in the church when it was
first built (c 12th century).
And which part was like
being in... er... the other place?
Cold feet (literally). Also, for the visitor, a massive sense
of temporal dislocation. "Odd" is a wholly inadequate
term to describe how it felt, celebrating a Christmastide festival
on what was, in most Western church calendars, the second day
of Lent. All those festive candles perched on every window ledge
– people assuring me that "the church looks even prettier at
Christmas when the snow is lying on the roof" – while my stomach
was rumbling from fasting!
What happened when you
hung around after the service looking lost?
Not a lot, but the main opportunity for fellowshipping had been
beforehand. It seemed that no one could leave in their motor
until the bishop had moved his (rather nice) vehicle. I heard
two different people offer a lift to the one worshipper who
had walked there. Whether that says something about ROCOR or
more about rural society in South Oxfordshire I could not say,
but it was a nice touch.
How would you describe the after-service
No refreshments: 12th-century architectural plans did not run
to facilities like a kitchen (or loo!).
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 If this were available regularly, rather than as an
occasional treat, I might well consider it. But there would
be some awkward questions to address: Why does "Western
Rite" follow a calendar that is out of synch with that
used by most of the rest of Britain? How does the social-action
side of the church work? Where are the kinds of characters in
the congregation – women in particular – to counterbalance the
clergy? Where are the children?
Did the service make you feel glad to be a
On the whole, yes. Very strong on taking me out of myself and
directing attention toward God. But not so hot on being conscious
of our working and interceding for the needs of the world.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The censing during the Magnificat. This could have looked immensely
silly, but the effect was timeless and beautiful.
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