Mystery Worshipper: Salskov
Church: Our Lady of Mount Carmel & St Simon Stock
Location: West Kensington, London
Date of visit: Sunday, 11 October 2009, 6:00pm
The Discalced Carmelites came to London in August 1862 and built a church designed by Edward Pugin on part of what was Isaac Newton's estate. That church was destroyed by incendiary bombs in 1944. Mass was celebrated in the priory itself until 1960, when a new church was opened, designed by Sir Giles Scott, known for his work on Liverpool Cathedral and the Battersea Power Station as well as the red telephone boxes that were once a fixture in every English town and village. It is a lofty building, faced with pink granite blocks to a height of about 14 feet, with cream coloured walls above. There are bas reliefs of the Stations of the Cross above the side arches, and side altars dedicated to the Sacred Heart, St Thérèse of Lisieux, St John Vianney (also known as the Curé of Ars), etc. The church is lit by windows in the side walls, both at ground level and higher up. These are glazed with pastel coloured diamond shaped panes.
The church sponsors several community groups, some based on the issues of living in faith, becoming a Catholic, discovering one's vocation or direction in life. They also host outside groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Little Cherubs (a private nursery school).
This is West London, a vibrant area. Even at 5.00 on Sunday afternoon, many of the large shops were open, and there was a bustling crowd, not all of whom had come to view the relics.
The Most Revd Alan Hopes, Auxiliary Bishop of the Diocese of Westminster, was the celebrant, assisted by at least 14 other vested priests and deacons, one young lad as crucifer, and six boys and girls as candle bearers. Mass was celebrated in the presence of His Eminence Cormac Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor, Archbishop Emeritus of Westminster, and the Most Revd Philip Boyce, D.D., O.C.D., Bishop of Raphoe. I think the introductions were made by the Revd Matt Blake, O.C.D., prior and parish priest. It was a somewhat crowded sanctuary.
What was the name of the service?Mass of preparation for the reception of the relics of St Thérèse of Lisieux.
How full was the building?
Definitely bulging. I got there 40 minutes before the service was due to begin, and all seats were taken. So were the stone ledges around the sides of the church and most of the floor space. People had dug themselves in for a long stand, or sit, on the stone floor. What this said about fire regulations I shudder to think.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Members of the Knights of St Columba, in their badges, were acting as ushers, but the crowd was almost too great to get to them. A couple of visitors pointed me to where the literature was ready for collection.
Was your pew comfortable?
Pew? What pew? This was beginning to look impossibly uncomfortable for someone with an arthritic hip. I moved down a side aisle toward the altar, but every empty pew space had somebody's Little Way booklet parked on it. However, there was a small vestibule to the right of the altar, and in the corridor beyond was a row of moulded plastic chairs. I grabbed one, an Irish lady grabbed another, and we positioned ourselves behind the low wall to the right of the altar as you're facing it. This gave us a grandstand view of the proceedings, and meant that at least one of the photos I took managed to catch the relics. I was there for over two hours, and the chair wasn't at all bad. One or two of the ushers said we would have to move in order to accommodate the procession, but when I asked a passing friar if we could stay there, he replied that of course we could. In any event, the procession entered from the back of the church.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
There was a lot of quiet talking, but many people sat silently, or prayed, and didn't seem to be disturbed. There was a strong atmosphere of expectation. In my corner, where there were several of us tucked away, we chatted or prayed. I noticed one chap busy writing in a notebook, and there were camcorders and official TV cameras. This was one occasion when another camera went completely unnoticed. The elderly couple next to me did ask if I was a journalist, but discretion over writing wasn't really a problem.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. Peace be with you. Welcome to you all."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
There were service sheets, apparently, but I didn't see one. Copies of Hymns Old and New were around, but unused. The Little Way Association booklet, containing a life of St Thérèse and mission news, was available at the back of the church, as was the parish newsletter. A lady presented me with a holy picture, rather like those current in my childhood. It featured God the Father (bearded), the Paraclete as a dove, and the Sacred Hearts of Mary and Jesus, with roses, presumably for St Thérèse (who was known as the Little Flower).
What musical instruments were played?
Guitar. The PA system was very good, but one instrument was not enough to keep the choir in tune.
Did anything distract you?
The steady drone of middle-of-the-road worship songs. The mass setting was obviously familiar to many in the congregation, and easy to pick up, so we could join in. But the songs were rather porridgy, tending to flatness. Some items, which were sung at every opportunity, became irritating. During the sermon, Bishop Hopes kept adjusting his zucchetto. I felt like offering him blue tack.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Formal but friendly. Chanting from the altar was a welcome relief from the worship songs coming from the gallery. No arm lifting. This had to be as ceremonious as was possible short of a bishop's installation. Visually beautiful.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – The bishop spoke clearly and was easy to understand, but I did find that the constant adjustment of the skull cap diverted my attention somewhat.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
He gave a potted history of St Thérèse, saying that she had relevance for our times. She can be a conduit of hope and prayer, helping us rediscover God's love for us, and challenging us to renew our love for him. He detailed the principles of the Little Way: of loving God, trusting him, and finding Jesus in our neighbours. St Thérèse points us not to God's anger, but to his love. Although unknown during her life, St Thérèse has become famous after her death, and will pray for us in heaven as we venerate her relics on earth.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The feeling of community in the church was palpable. The clarity of the service and the beauty of the procession were most inspiring. It has to be said that although the music, to me, was abysmal, the very lively "Walk with God" that preceded and accompanied the entry of the relics was a welcome chance to sing ourselves.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The music! No congregational hymns! The congregation obviously like singing, because they joined in with the mass setting. Why were we subjected to these dreary worship songs, only one of which was known outside the choir? And the tuning became ever more unreliable. Every time the choir stopped singing, we could tell from the guitar that their pitch had sunk. Either they couldn't hear the guitar or they weren't listening.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Just before the end of mass, the prior announced that owing to the crowds collected round the church waiting for the relics to be brought in, the police were threatening to cancel the service. (If they could have seen the bodies blocking every exit aisle in the church, they would certainly have done so.) The entrance of the relics was therefore brought forward immediately after the blessing. They were brought in to waves of applause and "Walk with God." They were contained in an ornate Italian style casket, which was itself protected by (I assume) a clear perspex casing. We were asked to let the media do their thing before commencing the walk past, and anyone who wished to leave should do so now. I took this opportunity to make my escape. Outside the church there was a considerable crowd, some with roses, one with a rose in her hair! As I walked to South Ken Tube, I met an American girl who asked the way to the church. Services would be continuing all night, so anyone with the patience to wait would eventually be able to get into the church.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – I've been happily ensconced in the Church of England for a quarter of a century, but if I were to begin to attend a Roman Catholic church again, the feeling in this one was very good.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, because of the feeling of community. The concept of venerating relics doesn't appeal to me particularly, but it was clearly important to the people attending.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The contrast between the beauty of the service and the barrage of substandard worship songs.