Mystery Worshipper: Kenelm
Church: Sacred Heart
Location: Battersea, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 8 January 2012, 11:30am
A large, red brick building. It has a wide nave and two side aisles, with attractive Romanesque columns separating the two. The high altar and tabernacle were elevated at the east end of the round apse, but the mass was celebrated nearer the congregation on a modern table. Parts of the building are crumbling somewhat, but fundraising has been taking place and a new annexe has just been built as well as some internal refurbishments.
I noticed a strong sense of community, with the deacon walking up and down the aisle laughing with parishioners before mass. Unfortunately their website does not give details of the parish organisations and activities, and I was not able to find out much on my own. The church is administered by priests of the Salesians of Don Bosco, said to be the second largest Catholic religious order in the world.
Battersea is an inner city district in South London, in the borough of Wandsworth. There are areas of affluence but also some of the bleakest council estates anywhere to be found. The church sits between the chic cafes of Battersea Square and some council estates, and the make-up of the congregation reflected both of these.
The Revd Christopher Heaps, SDB, parish priest, was the celebrant, assisted by the Revd Mr Michael Kennedy, deacon, who also preached. There were two other priests who concelebrated with Father Heaps, but their names were not given. Also assisting were a small army of servers (see later) and a lady who read the lessons and led the prayers of the faithful.
What was the name of the service?Sunday Mass
How full was the building?
When I arrived, a full seven minutes before the service, it seemed the church would be almost entirely empty, but almost out of nowhere it filled up in the last minutes. Most seats were filled I reckon at least 200. The congregation were very diverse and included a lot of children of different ages.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
No the person charged with welcoming was rather involved in conversation with the priest, so I helped myself to a hymn book and sat down.
Was your pew comfortable?
The wooden pew was fine, but the fixed kneeler didnt leave enough space to stand comfortably when required. I eventually resorted to standing on the kneeler, which was probably a faux pas.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quite noisy and busy, as everyone arrived at the last minute. The priest and deacon were rushing around trying to collar parishioners to read lessons, do the collection, etc.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
A bell rang, and the organist struck up with "The First Nowell." After this, the priest began with the standard "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit" followed by an informal welcome.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The Laudate hymn book and a mass card (although I had taken my shiny new missal along).
What musical instruments were played?
Electronic organ played from the gallery above the porch. A touch slow, but generally competent.
Did anything distract you?
The ancient Chinese art of feng shui (balance of energies) can churches have feng shui? of the sanctuary was badly disrupted by a hideous floor-to-ceiling banner with a very crude depiction of the star and stable at Bethlehem, in lurid yellow and white. It was right in my line of view and didnt fit in at all.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was a relaxed yet dignified mass, with clergy in gold vestments and servers in pint-sized purple cassocks with surplices. Although there was a good aroma of incense in the church, none was used at this service.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – Deacon Michael delivered his sermon very well and illustrated it clearly, but I occasionally lost the thread of his argument.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The deacon picked up on some of the lines from the hit Christmas single Military Wives, by the British choirmaster and television personality Gareth Malone, and linked these to the Epiphany. Over the centuries, generations of Christians have woven varying identities around the three Magi. But the fact remains that they were foreigners, and this reminds us that Christ came to earth for all people. The star that guided the Magi is the light of faith. Keep the faith and the light strong through prayer. Be a guiding light for all.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Mass began and ended with an enormous procession of child servers I counted at least 17. They were of all ages, boys and girls, and from every racial background imaginable. I found it inspiring both that so many children should want to participate actively in the mass, and that such a diverse group could be united in a common faith. One of the servers was given a medal at the end a rather fitting reward, I thought.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The bizarre "knees-bent" standing position that one had to adopt to fit into the pews was hardly comfortable, and the alternative (gaining six inches in height by standing on the kneelers) was rather conspicuous.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Sadly I couldnt hang around afterwards, as a text message that arrived during the last hymn informed me I was late for a roller-blading date. So I had to get my skates on, quite literally.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Im not sure if there was any, but I was skating into the distance by the time it would have been served.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 – I found the atmosphere friendly and the leadership very impressive. This was my first visit, but Ill be tempted to return.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Very much so: the congregation reminded me of the faith Christians share, whatever shape or size.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The phalanx of purple-clad altar servers.