A tall, red-brick building, opened in 1959 to replace an earlier one by the 19th century champion of Gothic Revival, Augustus Welby Pugin – that building was destroyed by bombs in 1944. Inside, the lower level of brick is encased in a warm red stone dressing. Two features stand out: the liturgically east wall of the sanctuary has a very tall reredos of Our Lady holding the infant Jesus, surrounded by scenes from her life; and the internal buttresses have been cleverly designed to arch over an ambulatory, with Stations of the Cross in gold and blue on the tympana of the arches.
The parish is entrusted to Carmelite Friars drawn from several nations. Carmelites first arrived in England in 1240, but the present group are Discalced, i.e., drawing on the reforms encouraged by St Teresa of Avila. There is a vigil mass on Saturday, four masses on Sunday, and three each weekday. To judge from the parish website and newsletter, most of their activities seem to be in prayer or spiritual formation.
This is one of the ritziest areas of London. Behind the church are quiet tree-lined streets of elegant mid-Victorian houses. Five hundred yards away is Kensington Palace, where Princess Diana once lived and would occasionally pop into the church to light a candle and pray. High-end shopping is around the corner in Kensington High Street.
A Carmelite friar presided and preached. Two lay people read, and at communion a second Carmelite came to help distribute communion.
What was the name of the service?Folk Mass for the Third Sunday of Lent, Year C.
How full was the building?
The church would easily seat 1000 and I estimate around 200 people were present.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
I entered a few minutes before Mmass began and there was no one to meet and greet – but they were there at the end, distributing the Easter mass schedule.
Was your pew comfortable?
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quiet and prayerful. Also despite an early spring, it was a chilly evening, and the well-heated church exuded an implicit welcome.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
'In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen' followed by the introit, spoken.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
There was a print-out with the hymn words, but I did not notice it until the end.
What musical instruments were played?
The website identifies the unaccompanied choir as the youth choir, but it looked to me to be mostly Filipina ladies of varying youthfulness. They sang a cappella.
Did anything distract you?
There was a ping and the woman in front of me looked at her messages. There was a bleep and the man to my left scrolled through his email. During the eucharistic prayer a phone rang three or four times. Standard Screwtape devilry. In addition, I felt the enormous retablo to be a bit intimidating, yet annoyingly the scenes in it are too small to be easily identified.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Although billed as a folk mass, it was too low-key to be that. Hymns were truncated. Let's say the a cappella choir made a joyful noise unto the Lord.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 — The priest had a tendency to swoop up in volume and then drop his voice, which added to problems of amplification (see below).
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
It is time to meditate on God's compassion and mercy. St Augustine had experienced God's compassion when God spoke to him and led him to reform his life. God in his mercy had called Moses to lead his people to freedom (first reading, Exodus 3:1-8, 13-15). This Lent we need to dedicate ourselves to fruitful lives, like Jesus' parable of the fig tree where it is given one more chance (Luke 13:1-9). We need to bear good fruit in family, community and society.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Although this is a wealthy area, I could see humble people too. I wondered if some of them were the servants of the well-to-do in the neighbourhood. I rejoiced to think that everybody could claim the church as their own. Also, during the Lord's Prayer everyone lifted their arms. This is standard in the US of A, but we chilly Anglo-Saxons are not prone to such displays of emotion.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Right from the beginning I caught about one word in three from the celebrant. It was a sound soup, slightly better from the pulpit than in the sanctuary. I was mid-church and had the impression that sound might have been better in other areas where the responses certainly sounded stronger. It might also have affected my understanding of the sermon, which seemed to lack a central theme – but then I only caught part of it.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
There were no refreshments, and the church simply emptied into the streets where, I can report, the cherry and magnolia trees are starting to flower.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
I enjoyed a delicious strawberry cheesecake and Earl Grey tea in a nearby French-Lebanese pâtisserie.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
6 — It felt a bit impersonal, but the regularity of the masses and the generous provision of times offer a public service.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The enthusiastic choir. And the enormous reredos (or is it a retablo?).