Mystery Worshipper: Cathoholic Anonymous
Church: St Joseph's
Location: Bromley, Kent, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 24 August 2008, 11:00am
The church's exterior is bland and nondescript. Inside it is beautiful, an oasis of peace. The stark white simplicity of the sanctuary with its carved oak crucifix is especially refreshing. There are two votive chapels, one dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes and one to the Sacred Heart, which are decorated in a more traditional style. The walls of the Lady chapel are hung with Byzantine icons depicting events in the life of Mary, something that I have never seen in a Latin Rite church. Next to the church is a huge convent with an ominous sign on the gate to inform passers-by that police dogs are being trained on the premises. I didn't ask.
They seem to be serious about their evangelisation, offering, in addition to the usual programme for potential converts, an informal programme of study and discussion for Catholics who want to learn more about their faith. This is the first time that I have seen a church making a conscious effort to reach out to Sunday Catholics who are tentatively thinking about doing more than warming the pews once a week, as well as non-Christians.
Bromley, at the southeast edge of London, was once described by Sir John Betjeman as a "lonely, high-class suburb." In medieval times Bromley flourished on the wool trade. Today's Bromley includes a large shopping and retail area as well as picturesque parks and woodlands.
I don't know. The friend who accompanied me observed that the celebrant looked like the character Herr Engelbert von Smallhausen from the popular British TV series 'Allo 'Allo. Intrigued to discover his actual name, we turned to the church website and found that his face didn't match either of the clergy mug shots (Canon Tom McHugh and Father Joseph Karukayil).
What was the name of the service?Sunday Mass.
How full was the building?
It was mostly full, with a large contingent of nuns in attendance.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
We arrived too early to be welcomed personally.
Was your pew comfortable?
It was unfortunately very slippery, so the collection of pencils that I carry about with me everywhere kept rolling onto the feet of the parishioners behind me. I think they were getting a bit annoyed by the end, but mass is hardly the place to say, "I have Asperger's syndrome. Wherever I am, there my pencils will be also."
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Reverential and expectant, with some quiet chatting.
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?
The Parish Mass Book and the Celebration Hymnal.
What musical instruments were played?
Did anything distract you?
The priest's resemblance to von Smallhausen and my worry over keeping my pencils under control distracted me a little. The statue of Our Lady of Lourdes in the Lady chapel was another distraction. She seemed to have no eyes, just two black holes. This gave her a very sinister appearance.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The worship was traditional and enthusiastic. I was particularly pleased that we sang four out of my five favourite hymns. Music is what makes or breaks the atmosphere of a service for me.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
5 – I feel unfair rating the preacher, as English was not his first language and he spoke in a thick accent that was very difficult for me to understand. His sermon could have been first-class, but unfortunately I wasn't able to grasp much of it.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
It was about Peter's role as the leader of the church, and Christ's decision to choose him in spite of his obvious weaknesses. I couldn't follow it in any more depth.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Realising that all my favourite hymns were to be sung (I always check out my hymnal before mass begins). There was another lovely moment at the end of mass, when the priest blessed a couple who were celebrating 40 years of marriage.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The hymnal contained a gender-inclusive version of "Be thou my vision." Absorbed in the music, I felt as though I had just received a dose of nasty medicine when we came to "Thou my great parent and I thy true child." The verse had been rewritten to preserve the rhyme, but it had lost the poetry.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I was so busy praying that possibly only God noticed my lost look. I tend to reserve it for him anyway.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was a celebration of a wedding anniversary going on, so we were all invited into the hall for a buffet lunch. I wasn't able to go, but I was touched by the open invitation.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 – If I lived in the area I would come here weekly.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
That terrifying statue of Our Lady of Lourdes, closely followed by the warm prayerful atmosphere. Oh, and the police dogs being trained at the convent.