Mystery Worshipper: Cathoholic Anonymous
Church: Our Lady & the English Martyrs
Location: Cambridge, England
Date of visit: Friday, 21 December 2007, 5:00pm
Our Lady and the English Martyrs is a stunningly beautiful Gothic church with a large sanctuary flanked by two side-chapels. When I walked up the central aisle on my way to communion, I realised that the giant crucifix above the communion rails has been strategically positioned so that the curve of the arches draws your eyes to the cross.
Its diversity makes this church a very special place. Glancing through the parish newsletter, I saw that they have regular masses in Latin, English and Polish, a special mass for young people, and all kinds of other things going on. Two examples: the noticeboard was recruiting volunteers for a Christian theatre company and also for a support service for people with mental illnesses.
Cambridge is, of course, the site of the University of Cambridge. It is also at the heart of Silicon Fen (also called the Cambridge Cluster), one of the most important technology centres in Europe. Cambridge is also the place where, in 1848, a set of rules was drawn up that served as the basis for the game of football (soccer).
I could not work this out. Five different priests are listed in the church bulletin (it's a very big parish) so I had no idea which one was officiating.
What was the name of the service?"Five Alive" Youth Mass
How full was the building?
I got to the car park and found it choked with vehicles. Inside, all the pews in the nave were full and people had started to take seats in one of the side chapels. I was very surprised by this, as this was the third mass of the day and the church is huge.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
I arrived halfway through the first hymn (a contemporary worship song called "These Are the Days of Elijah"). I had set out 30 minutes in advance, but I forgot about my talent for getting extremely lost in my own neighbourhood.
Was your pew comfortable?
I sat on a stone bench that was covered in musty green carpet, underneath the third station of the cross.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
When I walked in everyone was singing lustily. There were children everywhere, as it was a Youth Mass. One or two of them were running madly down a side aisle, but most of them were extremely attentive.
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?
A lot of people had copies of the Parish Mass Book. Unfortunately they had run out by the time I arrived.
What musical instruments were played?
Keyboards, guitars, flutes, and drums.
Did anything distract you?
Just as we were halfway through the Kyrie Eleison, which was led by an enthusiastic and very talented choir, four girls walked in. One of them was wearing high-heeled, patent-leather scarlet boots, tight-fitting jeans, and a backless top that showed her bra. Call me a teenage prude, but I found this a bit off-putting. Also, the second reading was in a foreign language, for a reason that I couldn't fathom. No translation was given. Being a linguistics student, I spent the first part of the sermon obsessively trying to work out which language family it belonged to, based on its phonology.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Funnily enough, I couldn't decide. The music was all contemporary and I had heard most of it sung before at charismatic Protestant services. The large choir, which was made up almost entirely of children and teenagers, sang with gusto. Luckily their voices practically filled the church, as hardly anyone else joined in. The Agnus Dei and the communion motet were more traditional in style, being soft and reverential.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
6 – He was not the most outstanding preacher I've ever heard, as he had difficulty organising everything he said around one theme. However, despite the homily's disjointed nature, I found there was a lot of food for thought there.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
It was about the transfiguration and the joys it brings us. The priest asked us to think of positive things that people have said to us in the past, things that really transformed our outlook on life and gave us the strength to cope during tough times. Peter's request to build three dwellings on Mount Tabor, one for Jesus, one for Moses, and one for Elijah, was born of a desire to prolong this "mountaintop experience". Later, the memory of the transfiguration would give hope to Jesus' friends as they saw him die on Calvary.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The incredibly beautiful music that accompanied the offertory. A little girl of about four years old tottered up to the front to present a holy icon to the priest just as the choir sang, "My heart is longing for the Lord..." She was peering past the priest and looking somewhere beyond the altar. The expression on her face was indescribable.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
I got annoyed with one child who kept running up and down the aisle, her pink wellington boots thwacking the floor hard with every step. Her parents made no effort to calm her down, not even during the liturgy of the eucharist. I appreciate that you can't expect small children not to fidget, but it's possible to keep them occupied without letting them run free and wild in the nave.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
A child came up to me and said "Hi!" in a very bright and bubbly tone. His mother hissed, "Richard, that lady is praying!" and led him away from me with an apologetic smile. For the future, I will know not to do my vacant-eyed lost sheep impersonation in front of a candle rack and a pieta. As I left by a side-door, a representative of the Catholic Agency For Overseas Development (CAFOD) asked me if I had heard about the Family Fast Day.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There were no refreshments provided.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – Our Lady and the English Martyrs seems like a vibrant and dedicated community and the kind of place where I could be very happy. If I were going to defect from my regular church, I'd come to this one. I probably wouldn't make Five Alive my regular mass, though – I prefer something more traditional. It's easier for me to concentrate then.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Oh, yes. The mixture of nationalities and ages made me fully appreciate the richness of the Christian family.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The hauntingly beautiful communion motet and the face of that young child as she participated in the offertory.