The Priory Church of Our Lady of England, Storrington, West Sussex

Our Lady of England, Storrington, West Sussex, England


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Mystery Worshipper: Kingsfold
Church: Our Lady of England
Location: Storrington, West Sussex, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 11 September 2005, 10:00am

The building

I think the building is actually Victorian, but the description that immediately came to mind was "mock French Gothic." The nave terminates in a semi-circular apse, and features a vaulted ceiling with whitewashed walls. The overall atmosphere is of light and space. There is a chapel off to one side, separated from the main body by glass. Since some of the notices on the boards in the porch referred to the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament and I couldn't see anything that looked like a tabernacle or monstrance anywhere else, I'm guessing that this is what the chapel is.

The church

Storrington is the provincial house of the Canons Regular of Prémontré, otherwise known as the Premonstratensian or Norbertine Canons (after St Norbert, their founder). The church is located at one end of the community's house, and the parish is served by the Canons. It certainly seems to be a very prayerful congregation – I saw notices about prayer groups for mothers, parish prayer groups, meditation groups, healing groups (I think) and Inter-Churches in Storrington prayer groups. There were also notices about an upcoming harvest supper and a fair trade stall.

The neighborhood

Just over the road from the church is a quiet, grassy garden area with a large statue of Our Lady as its focus. Storrington itself is a small, moderately attractive town (or very large village, depending on your point of view) nestling in the edge of the South Downs in the depths of the West Sussex countryside. Not only is it home to the Premonstratensians, but there was, at some point in the past, another rather handsome abbey in the town – St Joseph's – which is now being developed for housing.

The cast

Either the Revd Andrew Smith, O.Praem., or the Revd Martin Gosling, O.Praem., presided and preached (the notice sheet didn't say which). The Revd Roger Stone served as deacon.

What was the name of the service?

Sunday Mass.

How full was the building?

Comfortably full – my initial count came in at around 50 people, but several more came in just as the service was about to start, so I reckon there were probably more like 60 or 70 folk there.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Not really. A number of people smiled at me in passing but that was about it. The lady who handed me my books broke off from her conversation and passed them to me with the words "Thank you," then returned to her conversation.

Was your pew comfortable?

There were bench pews with a bench kneeler attached to the back of the pew in front, and these were surprisingly comfortable. Mind you, the child who was sitting next to me still managed to fall off the kneeler during the eucharistic prayer, with a clearly audible "Ouch!"

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

It was mostly hushed as people either sat quietly or knelt in prayer. There was some chatter, but not much, and certainly not enough to be intrusive.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

I guess this depends on when you consider the service to have started! The first words spoken were an announcement: "There are just two things to tell you this morning about the music..." Even so, the opening hymn, which began with the words: "Diverse in culture, nation, race..." was unannounced. The first words of the liturgy itself were: "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The Parish Mass Book, and a hymn book called Laudate. There was also a duplicated sheet containing specific sung responses for the day.

What musical instruments were played?

Mostly the organ, but an electric piano was played during the communion.

Did anything distract you?

Well, the Sanctus bells nearly made me leap off my kneeler! Not only did they make quite a of noise, there was also a richness and depth to the sound. In fact, it made me think immediately of those incredibly ornate 18th or 19th century French clocks made of bronze or brass that you see in stately homes, or on the Antiques Roadshow television programme. It was a wonderful sound, but it knocked me off my concentration!

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

Difficult one, this. It didn't fit into any of my usual measures of relative height up the candle. It was reverent and dignified, whilst completely unpretentious. It was worshipful, and at the same time joyful, with the congregation heartily joining in the hymns and sung parts of the liturgy. There was a feeling of wholeness about it.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

4 minutes.

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

3 – This score reflects the fact that I found it incredibly difficult to hear what the preacher was saying due to the shortcomings of the sound system. He delivered his homily without notes, and rather gave the impression that he wasn't entirely sure where he was going with his point.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Peter thought that to forgive someone seven times was generous; Jesus's answer that you should forgive 70 times seven was indicative of the fact that forgiveness is infinite. There is a distinction (I think, as the sound system failed the preacher here) between forgiving many offences, and forgiving the same offence committed many times. If we do not forgive others, we cannot expect or hope that God will forgive us.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

During the singing of the Agnus Dei, I became aware of what sounded like a single voice, pure and clear, rising in a descant line. It came out of nowhere and floated over the melody – and was absolutely gorgeous. On a slightly different level, I was aware throughout the service of a sense of peace and serenity, that in some way it was right that I should be in that church on that day, and that too was a wonderful gift.

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

Definitely the effect that the sound system had on the celebrant's voice. His inflection and cadence interacted with the system in such a way that his words and the amplification of those words rumbled around together in an almost indistinguishable mush.

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

Nothing. Not one thing! I handed my books back and asked, "Where do you want these?" They were taken from me and nothing was said. I browsed at the tradecraft stall for a while – nothing. I gazed at the notice boards – nothing. I finally bought something from the stall and haggled for a moment over the price, but that was it. Curiously though, whilst I felt conspicuous and visible, it didn't bother me that no one spoke to me. I was still feeling pretty peaceful and was content just to be left alone to enjoy that mood.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

If after-service coffee was on offer, it was a closely kept secret. Nothing was said, and nothing was written in the bulletin sheet to indicate any coffee. So I pottered off. When I returned about half an hour later with my camera, I spotted some folks just leaving, with coffee cups in their hands.

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

6 – Despite the fact that no one spoke to me, I really didn't feel unwelcome – I was there worshiping with them, and that was perfectly all right. If I were in the area again, I would feel quite comfortable about going back.

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

Certainly. I was very glad to have been there, and was very grateful for the peace I'd experienced.

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

I'm still reflecting on the paradox of how I felt welcome and a part (however briefly) of the worshipping community without a word ever being spoken on the subject. Curious.

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