Mystery Worshipper: Sursum Corda
Church: St Aidan's
Location: Carlisle, Cumbria, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 5 July 2009, 10:30am
St Aidan's is a very pleasant turn-of-the-century Gothic building, large and airy. The sanctuary is dominated by a large crucifix, and the dominant colour is pink - rarely an advantage, but in this case not nearly as bad as it sounds. It's not a thoughtful liturgical choice, but it is quite restful and comforting. Everything is laid out in a very proper Anglo-Catholic way, including six altar candles and a prominent shrine to the Blessed Virgin.
The parish is faithful to the Anglo-Catholic tradition and is a member of Forward in Faith. There are two low masses, one high mass, and evensong with benediction each Sunday. Mass is celebrated each weekday at varying times. Confessions are heard Saturday mornings.
Carlisle is the most northerly city in England and traces its origin to a 1st century Roman outpost associated with Hadrian's Wall. It is a busy industrial and marketing town and a major rail centre. The church is set in a tree-lined, well-kept area called Botcherby, which looks about the same vintage as St Aidan's. We were a bit uncertain whether we had come to the right place; the notice board was unreadable from the road. We had to ask someone if this were indeed St Aidan's. There were half a dozen or so cars parked in the area adjacent to the church, so the congregation may not have been entirely local.
The celebrant was the Revd David Miller, a fact that could be determined only by looking under the "Thanks" section at the back of the service sheet. We later learned that he was standing in for the parish priest, who was on holiday. The acolytes, the organist and the reader were unnamed.
What was the name of the service?Solemn Mass and Sermon.
How full was the building?
Pretty empty. There were probably around 30 people in a building that might hold between 400 and 500. There were no children present; indeed, I don't believe I saw anyone under 60 or 65.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
A pleasant couple, presumably man and wife, greeted us warmly with a very smiley "Good morning."
Was your pew comfortable?
Normal standard church pew, perfectly satisfactory.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Very quiet and reverential.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Celebration for Everyone hymnal (words only) plus a mass book and service sheet.
What musical instruments were played?
Did anything distract you?
The uncertainty of the organist's fingers. From beginning to end, I was on tenterhooks as to whether we were going to survive musically. The harmonies of the hymns were clearly not those intended by their composers. The six mature ladies who sat in the choir stalls were past their vocal prime so much so that one of them had opted to sing an octave lower than the rest. At first I couldn't figure out who in the sanctuary was singing in the baritone register. When I went up for communion, there she was – and giving it her all!
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was certainly high church – solemn, remote and detached, with incense.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – A solid exposition of the gospel text, well preached.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Father Miller preached on the gospel for the day, Mark 6:1-6 (the story of Our Lord's visit to his home town and his inability to work any miracles there). He likened this incident to the moment before Christ's crucifixion when the people shouted for Jesus to come down from the cross. Why, then, did St Mark alone include this incident in Nazareth in his account of the gospel story? What does it tell us? He suggested that people will judge Jesus and his Church by what we do, and that if we fail to listen to him, he can do no miracles in our lives. In contrast, God was able to perform a miracle when Mary said "Yes" when told that she would conceive a child by the Holy Spirit. Our co-operation is vital if God is to do things for us. We can do great things if we will but let him work through us.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Attending an Anglo-Catholic mass in a part of England where such events are comparatively rare. At the end of the service, we learned from Father Miller that St Aidan's is the only Anglo-Catholic church in the entire diocese of Carlisle.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The singing, without a doubt. In the first place, though we wanted to join in the hymns or the mass setting, we were not provided with music - only the words. What conclusion could we draw but that strangers and newcomers are not meant to join in the musical part of the worship? It must be admitted, though, that St Aidan's is by no means alone among English churches in this regard. This is bad enough in churches that offer time-honoured hymns and mass settings, but it is absolutely unforgivable in churches like St Aidan's that appear to prefer obscure tunes throughout. (Might this be one reason why there was such a sparse congregation?) The single most horrible example of hymn choice and rendering was the communion hymn – a version of Elvis Presley's "I can't help falling in love with you" re-vamped and attached to a singularly banal text. I am not making this up. The angels must have put their hands over their ears!
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
A little lapdog suddenly popped up from under one of the side pews the moment the mass was over; it had obviously been lurking there throughout the service. The bulletin stated that there was coffee in the hall. We walked back up the long aisle toward the sanctuary, where we passed through still-lingering clouds of incense to a door that led down a twisting and turning passage.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Coffee was served in proper cups along with a choice of biscuits, including custard creams and bourbons! Everyone was friendly; indeed, we had the distinct feeling that visitors are rare and highly valued as a conversational novelty.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
1 – For Catholic-minded Anglicans there are no other choices in this part of the world. If I lived in Carlisle, I fear I would feel compelled to expand my carbon footprint and repair to another diocese. Or possibly a conversation with the resident priest might change my way of thinking.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Alas, no. Despite the quality of the sermon and the welcome from those we met at coffee hour, I felt a bit depressed by the whole experience. The hymnal the parish has chosen to use, Celebration for Everyone, should be renamed Misery for Everyone - at least for everyone with any poetic or musical sensibilities. How could one possibly feel glad trying to sing words such as: "Go through the park, on into the town, the sun still shines on, it never goes down ... Take seeds of his spirit, let the fruit grow, tell the people of Jesus, let his love show."
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The little lapdog.