The Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception (as Farm Street is formally known) was built in the 1840s as the London church of the English Jesuits. It is in the Gothic Revival style, built by Joseph John Scoles, and has a high altar designed by Augustus Pugin. The façade on Farm Street faces southeast rather than west, and is modelled on Beauvais Cathedral, with a striking rose window. The nave has a simple wooden vault, but the aisles are rib-vaulted in stone with elaborate bosses. There are numerous side chapels dedicated to saints and martyrs.
Farm Street is the principal Jesuit Church in London. It is next door to the London Jesuit Centre, whose ‘mission is to accompany the people of London on the path to spiritual maturity’. It offers a programme of Ignatian spirituality retreats, guided prayer, training in spiritual direction, and teaching in theology. The church celebrates Masses welcoming LGBT+ Catholics on the second and fourth Sundays of the month at 5.30pm.
The church is in the heart of Mayfair, the most affluent district of London. According to the Financial Times, ‘If Mayfair is a village, it must stake a claim to be the world’s most expensive. Possibly its least occupied, too.’ The church is nestled in a residential street and is not directly serviced by public transport. I took the bus to Green Park and walked northwards from there.
The celebrant was assisted by four altar servers and two extraordinary ministers of holy communion.
What was the name of the service?11am Latin Mass.
How full was the building?
The church is said to hold 475 at full capacity, so it was at about 50% capacity this morning. In a spatial expression of Catholic humility, the left aisle was far fuller than the right; and the rear of the church was much fuller than the front – I assume to better hear the choir in the back loft.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
There was no personal welcome. The hymn sheets and service booklets were self-service.
Was your pew comfortable?
Yes, I sat on the right near the front and had the whole pew to myself. The kneelers are kept down so I noticed a lady in crutches having a hard time navigating the pews. Regular Catholic etiquette games apply when the people behind you are kneeling to pray after communion; there is ample room between pews to lean forward so as not leave them praying into your back.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
It was fairly subdued. People did not really seem to know one another, so most people sat quietly and listened to the organist.
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?
Latin Mass Book: Jesuit Church of the Immaculate Conception – Farm Street.
What musical instruments were played?
Only the organ.
Did anything distract you?
An elderly lady struggled to put her phone on silent during the prayers of intention. The rather tall thurifer greatly elevated the mystic qualities of the liturgy by standing in front of the priest during the prayers of consecration.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Nothing post-Victorian, but still quite diverse. The Kyrie, Gloria and Sanctus were all taken from Mozart's Missa Brevis in B-flat Major. It was not the most penitential Kyrie setting, but it was certainly lively.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
9.5 minutes in total.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
6 — The celebrant's skill as a homilist shone in what was left unsaid, rather than what was said. It was clear that great erudition has been employed in purposely navigating around difficult areas of received doctrine.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
I imagine it is only on Trinity Sunday when you can find Jesuit priests struggling against the heresies within. The opening lines of the sermon were mildly exasperated: ‘It is difficult to preach on this topic without being a modalist or tritheist; I will leave you to decide what I may be.’ The bulk of the sermon which followed focused on the bond of love which ties the three persons of the trinity together, and ended with the declaration: ‘Love is the aim of the game.’
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
I especially liked the excerpts from Mozart's mass, which I assume were adapted for the organ. There is also a particularly heavenly chapel to the left of the choir, which makes full use of the church's unorthodox orientation – not doctrinally, but rather by the church physically facing northwest. It allows beams of light from a single clerestory window above the south side of the chapel to pierce through the incense and hit the tabernacle. Gothic drama flawlessly choreographed.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The celebrant charged through the opening rite despite the microphone not working, and the attendants scurrying in and out of the vestry did not seem to fix it.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I came in time to catch the annual parish picnic, which was held in the park just behind the parish. The park is public, so the parishioners were advised to keep the footpaths clear for pedestrians. Understandably, when I lingered around, I was probably mistaken for someone walking through the park, so no one spoke to me.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
The after service coffee was called off, with the parish picnic taking place instead. I did not bring any food to share, so I didn't help myself to anything.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?6 —
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. The austerity of the ordinary form of the Mass does not seduce or solicit piety, but is rather a place where Christian faith can be practiced.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
That beautiful chapel where they reserve the blessed sacrament.