St Helena, Lundy Island, England

St Helena, Lundy Island, England


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Helena
Location: Lundy Island, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 7 June 2009, 3:00pm

The building

A tall Victorian building (1896), the work of the Gothic Revivalist John Norton, whose churches are usually in urban places (e.g., Stapleton, St Mathias Bristol, etc.). It was constructed of stone from demolished cottages on Lundy Island. The church stands at the top of Lundy and can be seen from the sea. It has a tall tower with eight bells which can be heard across the island. The interior is high church, featuring polychromatic brick (coloured patterned bricks) and windows showing signs of ad-hoc repairs. Curiously the east window is unfinished although the tower has been completed (usually the other way around!). I overheard one of the officials say that St Helena's may soon close due to the expense of keeping it in good repair.

The church

St Helena's is extra-parochial and in the care of the Hartland Coast Team Ministry. This was called an annual service, so I'm not sure whether services happen at other times of the year or not.

The neighborhood

Lundy Island is a granite outcrop about three miles long and half a mile wide that rises approximately 400 feet out of the Bristol Channel about 11 miles off the North Devon coast not far from Ilfracombe. The island is owned by the National Trust and is financed, administered and maintained by the Landmark Trust. Lundy's climate is bleak, foggy and inclement, and it has been said that the difficulty of getting there is exceeded only by the difficulty of getting away. Even so, Lundy is popular with day-trippers and scientists. Its relatively isolated location has made it a haven for several unique species of plants and animals. There are only a few small houses and one makeshift road, and the island is home year-round to 28 people.

The cast

The Revd Philip Auden, port chaplain, Mission to Seafarers – a jovial chap whom I saw walking around the boat that we came in on, which was the Waverley, the last seagoing paddle steamer in the world. Mr Simon Morgan presided at the electronic keyboard.

What was the name of the service?

Evensong (Book of Common Prayer)

How full was the building?

The church was comfortably full of passengers from the boat. Some chose to stand up.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Chaplain Auden's jovial demeanour whilst on the boat changed into the usual Anglican stiff upper lip upon entering the church. An official looking person was stationed at the door, but most people kept to themselves in true Anglican fashion.

Was your pew comfortable?

A slightly dusty but comfortable enough Victorian pew.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Whilst the boat was en route from Clevedon, an announcement was made about the service and a makeshift choir was drawn from the passengers.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Welcome to Lundy Island."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

A nicely printed service sheet.

What musical instruments were played?

Sadly, the church's pipe organ has been rendered unplayable by the salty air. Instead, Simon Morgan presided expertly at the electronic keyboard, and one would be hard put to notice the difference. There was a makeshift choir and the hymns were high church fantastic. The last hymn is one I will always associate with this day: "Christ triumphant ever reigning" – marvelous words which seemed to join the beauty of the creation around us with being part of the church.

Did anything distract you?

The incense! Quite unexpected. However, my watch kept distracting me, as the Waverley keeps very strict time and, well, time was marching on. I thought I would have to make a quick escape if the boat were to leave before the service ended! A gentleman presented a plaque to the chaplain for a lady called Gwyneth White, who had been associated with the island for a long time. I couldn't help thinking that he looked rather like Matthew Kelly, moderator of the popular British TV programme Stars in Their Eyes.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

Anglo-Catholic! Having grown bored with the Protestant hymn sandwich, I thought it nice to have a service with a bit of majesty. The psalms were chanted on a monotone note, as were the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis. The eight bells were rung as we sang Psalm 150. For me, there was a hint of sadness as the last bell chimed on our way out and we had to make our way back to the boat. It marked the end of a beautiful service in a lovely place.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

I was staring at my watch hoping I wouldn't miss my boat, but even so I lost track of how long the chaplain preached. So I'll just say, "Not too long."

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

10 – Chaplain Auden's style was very engaging and conversational, with plenty of laughs although many serious points too.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The sermon was based around the readings, which were as beautiful as the island we were visiting: Ezekiel 1:4-10, 22-28 (Ezekiel's vision of the four living creatures) and Revelation 4:1-11 (the throne of heaven surrounded by elders and the four living creatures). He said that he didn't fully understand the readings and they reminded him of the science fiction TV series Doctor Who, which drew some laughs. The Church has lost some of its beauty and majesty and has confined religion to a box of four walls on a Sunday. But there is beauty in fellowship. Look around at the beauty of God's creation.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The music. Even without the pipe organ, the beauty and majesty of the service lit with candles and the wonderful hymns seemed to mirror (although it could never recreate it) the beauty of the creation outside. Also, in a way, the fact that we were on a tight schedule made the service more poignant in the sense that we have little time and so much to fill it with!

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

Only a slight one – in that there were no regular worshipers to welcome and greet. Also, a couple sitting near me were initially a bit grumpy, and as soon as they realised that there was no pipe organ they left the service. Finally, on the boat, an elderly Welsh gent complained that he had walked out because the service was "too high." I presume he must have been "chapel!"

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

No time. It was 4.00pm and boat was off at 4.30. And so I shook hands with the jovial vicar and sped off down the hillside. Goodness knows how some people made it!

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

No coffee at church today, but the Waverley set out a very nice meal for us on board for the trip back.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

10 – If I could live on the island I would love to come here. It would be nice to have so much peace and quiet! I'm not of the Anglo-Catholic wing of the Church, but there is something about that kind of worship that lifts it above the plain and sometimes banal offerings of the hymn sandwich type of service.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

Yes, it did. The service was a point where people joined together. It was good to be with people from many churches (including some youth!) who took part in organising and producing today's special service.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

The sound of "Christ triumphant ever reigning" ringing in my ears as I walked out of the church into the sunshine with the sight of cliffs and the sea ahead. Also the sound of the eight bells ringing – and the last sad couple of chimes as the church doors closed behind us.

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