Mystery Worshipper: 103 (One-O-Three)
Church: St George's
Location: Warminster, Wiltshire, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 1 January 2006, 4:00pm
A hidden gem. It's a little 1930s red brick building at the side of a busy road. As one approaches, one notes a statue of St George and the little Methodist chapel style windows with frosted glass. One enters via the narthex, which was added in the 1980s at the time of Pope John Paul II's visit to Britain. The inside is narrow but feels spacious and airy. The shiny brass candlesticks and a strong aroma of incense immediately catch one's attention.
The parish sponsors numerous groups, including (to name only a few) a fair trade outreach group, a justice and peace group that promotes Catholic social teachings, a parents and toddlers group, Churches Together in Warminster, and the Wednesday Club, meeting for lunch once each month to hear guest speakers on a variety of topics.
Warminster is a small town lying to the southwest of Salisbury Plain, infamous for its alleged UFO sightings. To the west of the town lies Cley Hill, for almost forty years a meeting place for UFO spotters, drawn by talk of lights, flying objects and other unidentifiable oddities. A bypass has taken much of the traffic out of Warminster's main streets, allowing the town to retain much of its old charm. The church itself is situated on quite a busy road.
The Rev. Christopher Whitehead, parish priest, led the service. A gentleman named Anthony, who I thought was a priest but who in fact was a seminarian, served as cantor and master of ceremonies.
What was the name of the service?Sung Vespers and Benediction
How full was the building?
There were 42 people in the church including the altar party, so it was about half full.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
No, it was silent and peaceful – why would you want to disturb that with a greeting?
Was your pew comfortable?
I didn't really notice how comfortable it was. I spent most of my time kneeling on the leather padded fold-down kneeler, which served its purpose quite nicely.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Absolute silence except for a rather noisy heater that was thankfully switched off before the service began.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
Sung at the foot of the altar steps: Veni, creator Spiritus ("Come, creator Spirit").
What books did the congregation use during the service?
A blue home-produced service booklet titled Evening Prayer II – Mary, Mother of God. A white sheet of paper with the order of benediction. The Laudate hymn book.
What musical instruments were played?
A rather convincing two-manual electronic organ.
Did anything distract you?
The church is on a rather busy road and throughout the service I could hear traffic. One member of the altar party was vested in a lovely alb, but I could see his black trousers through the alb!
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Nosebleed high church, ultra-mega biretta-sporting traditional Roman Catholic.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Ahhh, the cantor's singing was delightful and the organ sounded real. A lot of the service brought back memories of high church Anglican that I was brought up in. It was just so beautiful!
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Well, the reader (who I've been told is an actress) read the lesson in a rather dramatic way. It took me by surprise, and I knew that I would start laughing if I didn't try to surpress it, so I hid behind the service paper and tried my best to keep quiet. It was very difficult!
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I stood at the back for a bit and people smiled as they walked past, but nobody spoke to me. Then I approached Father Whitehead and commented on his biretta. As we chatted, it came out that we have a mutual friend, and I was soon whisked to the sacristy where we all had a good long talk about churchy stuff and tat. Great fun!
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
10 – I really felt at home. It was the closest thing to the high Anglican liturgy I was used to, yet it was Roman Catholic.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Oh yes, I want to go back again!
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
Father Whitehead's biretta. I was sure that Roman Catholic priests didn't wear birettas anymore, but I've seen one at last!