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  1014: St Etheldreda's, Holborn, London

St Etheldreda's, Ely Place, Holborn, London

Mystery Worshipper: Rex Monday and Dr Flitcraft.
The church: St Etheldreda's, Ely Place, Holborn, London.
Denomination: Roman Catholic (very!).
The building: Hidden away in a row of Georgian terraces, the church is visible from the road only by its great end stained glass window. Inside are several carvings, maze-like passages, a vault, and a surprisingly small nave with statues of the English martyrs gazing down past ornate lighting fixtures.
The church community: This is the oldest Roman Catholic church in England and the first pre-Reformation church to be restored to Catholic worship.
The neighbourhood: On the edge of the City of London – and right next door to Hatton Garden. The location feels quite mercantile and transitory. On the weekend it is very quiet.
The cast: The Rev. Kit Cunningham, rector, was the celebrant. The Rev. Dr Lawrence Hemming, deacon, gave the homily. The director of music was Paul Gillham, and the organist was Iestyn Evans.

What was the name of the service?
Sung Latin mass.

How full was the building?
Chock-full. No inch of pew space left unbacksided.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
Nobody welcomed us. After five minutes of hanging around at the back of the church, we sat ourselves down and awaited events.

Was your pew comfortable?
Unadorned wood, which would have been uncomfortable under other circumstances, but the surroundings and service kept our minds on higher things. The pew in front was close enough to hold onto during the standing bits.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quiet as people filtered in, with some barely audible conversations. Ten minutes before the service began, the organist played some reverentially jaunty tunes to ease us into the service proper – which commenced with a tinkling bell.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti. Amen."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
An in-house missal and Parish Hymns.

What musical instruments were played?
Organ plus a professional choir. Palestrina's Missa Papae Marcelli replaced the scheduled music, in celebration of the Papal investiture.

Did anything distract you?
People continued to filter in until halfway through the service, causing some ripples around us. One lady sported a rather distracting hat with a rose and two pheasant feathers. A perspicacious young girl in the pew directly in front of us noticed that we were not like the other worshippers and kept checking up on us. Some women in the congregation stood up minutes before everyone else, leaving us with a vague sense of not knowing what to do. Father Cunningham spoke with a rich and resonant voice but occasionally tended to rush and slur the words – even having had some Latin, I found it difficult to follow the service at times. But the atmosphere was such that these were mere divertissements rather than distractions. There was always the music to pull us back on track.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
You don't get much more traditional than a sung Latin mass, and the singing was to a very high standard. That plus incense, white and gold vestments, acres of stained glass with the spring sunshine filtering in, bells, and lots of priestly ritual made the whole business very sensual. But the service was not without its humourous moments, which made the occasion feel more relaxed than one might expect.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
13 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – At one point Deacon Hemming put on a pretty good American accent for effect.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The deacon spoke of how Pope John Paul II's passing at Eastertide turns the mind toward the resurrection. He said he was happy with the choice of Cardinal Ratzinger – happier than he was prepared to show – because the new Pope was a strong pastor but nevertheless had a twinkle in his eye. His speedy election reveals a church united. The deacon concluded by tying all this in with the gospel lesson. We are not here to choose, but rather to be chosen.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The choir really soared in the Kyrie, when everything – light, scents, music – combined to transcendental effect. The children seemed caught up in the spirit of the service, as did the congregation. The exchange of peace was warm and genuine, which was touching in a setting of such formality. The martyrs peering down from their niches brought on thoughts of the triumph of hope over despair.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The sermon flirted too closely with authoritarianism: "Come and see the violence inherent in the system." Also, it was hard not to feel some of the darker side of the history of the place during the service. The cycles of repression and renewal aren't over yet, and the deacon's delight in stern leadership and passive souls seemed to emphasise this.

If intercessory prayers were said, what issues were raised?
The new Pope, the sick, and the recently deceased.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Nothing happened. We hung around, went back in, got in the way, got out of the way, but the surging tide swept past regardless. There was a christening immediately afterward and our service had run over, which may have been the cause of the rapid exodus.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – It would have been easy to get much more caught up in it were we not mystery worshipping. As a place of spiritual refreshment, this church would be hard to beat.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes – and glad to be part of a rich tradition stretching back hundreds of years.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
Early in the service, Father Cunningham rather impishly promised us the "Vatican National Anthem" in honour of Pope Benedict XVI. This proved to be the closing hymn, God Bless Our Pope, a piece of amusingly forthright mid-Victoriana:

Full in the panting heart of Rome,
Beneath the Apostle's crowning dome,
From pilgrims' lips that kiss the ground
Breathes in all tongues one only sound:
"God bless our Pope, God bless our Pope,
God bless our Pope, the great, the good."


Dr Flitcraft, of impeccable Calvinist stock, saw this as an ecumenical matter and had no problem with the words, but Rex Monday – mid-church C of E – could think only of how appalled his dear mother would have been and couldn't do anything more than hum along.
 
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