St Agnes is a temple of the Tractarian movement, built at the expense of Douglas Horsfall, a wealthy local businessman. The stern foreboding red brick exterior of this large Gothic pile gives no indication of the pious gaiety within. The nave, aisles, transepts, chancel and ambulatory have been likened to a mini Truro Cathedral. Grills and polished wrought iron gates abound, as do side altars, statues, lamps, stations, and confessional desks. There is a fine stone gallery at the west end beneath the great window, and below the clerestory windows runs a continuous triforium (or stone gallery) that goes right round the church. Noteworthy stained glass is by Kempe. The nave altar, parked at the bottom of the chancel steps, detracts from the Anglo-Catholic splendour of the high altar; the whole scene is spoilt by the intrusion. The choir must feel very lonely, marooned up in the chancel.
St Agnes describes itself as a working church, a house of prayer that seeks to be welcoming and inclusive. There are Bible study and discussion groups plus a chapter of the Society of Mary and the Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament. They maintain links with the diocese of Wiawso in western Ghana.
This church looms large on a corner plot in the Liverpool suburb of Toxteth Park, an area of large Victorian and Edwardian terraced houses and villas. Close to Sefton Park, this is bedsit land, being within easy access of the city centre and the Liverpool universities.
The Revd Canon Christopher Cook, parish priest, was the principal celebrant. There were two other unnamed concelebrants. The Revd Ian Brooks, parish priest of St Pauls, Croxteth, preached.
What was the name of the service?Solemn Concelebrated Mass and Procession of the Relic of St Agnes.
How full was the building?
Comfortably full for such a large building: about 120 in the congregation. There were also nine assorted clergy, eight servers serving, eight choristers singing, one conductor conducting, one organist playing, and a partridge in a pear tree.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
On my arrival, a sidesperson uttered a rather formal "Good evening" and thrust a printed order of service into my hand.
Was your pew comfortable?
No, sadly. My poor gluteus maximus was protesting after five minutes and brought on an attack of sciatica. I pulled my chair forward, and the man behind me, who was saying his prayers, did a nosedive. He got up and moved away. Oops!
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
From my first entrance, I was aware of the subdued quietude the hushed holiness about the place, of people at their devotions.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Pray for us, holy St Agnes."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
A specially printed service sheet contained all the words of hymns and prayers. No other books were used.
What musical instruments were played?
Powerful electronic organ, one of the finest sounding church electronic instruments I have ever heard. The young organist sat up in the organ loft on the north side of the chancel.
Did anything distract you?
The presence of the nave altar cuts off the view toward the high altar. This detracts and jars the senses. The reredos is flanked by what appear to be giant stone parking meters.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Over-the-top high church. Right off the candle! The smoke was so thick that one couldnt see across the nave. When the bell rang at the start of the service, we were all invited to follow on in procession round the church, priests on casters leading the way. The choreography of the participants was well orchestrated but seemed quite complex at times: a bit like watching Strictly Come Dancing! At the end of the service, the relic of St Agnes was venerated but more about that in a moment.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – Father Brooks preached from notes in a well-rehearsed fashion: been here, done it before.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Since his ordination, Father Brooks had heard about 30 sermons on the subject at St Agnes. He told of the early church persecutions from the year AD303 by the emperor Diocletian. The young girl Agnes was martyred the following year and is among the early saints actually mentioned in the Roman canon of the mass. She is an inspiration of achievement, especially among children who need our support when they are ridiculed, just as Agnes was ridiculed. Today, Christians are being treated abominably by certain regimes who see the Church as a threat. Our own Church of England is under threat; its position in our own country at this time is grave and faces divisions. We are unsure about what the General Synod may decide about Catholics; but we pray that we may meet again next year to look at what safeguards we have for our future.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The lavish appointments and splendid ceremony put me in a woolgathering (i.e., daydreaming) mood. I imagined St Agnes, virgin and martyr, holding a lamb in her arms, and thought "Agnus Dei". This led me to reflect on the fact that I am fond of sheep. Baaa.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The proceedings had gone on for two hours, and for me it was just too much at the end of a busy week. I wanted it to end and to go home to my bed. Two hours in church is way too long. I was very tired and wished that the patronal festival had been a morning service on the appropriate day.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I went for a little walk round the ambulatory after the service. In the gloom, I failed to notice a mop bucket parked against the wall. I fell over it and took a chunk out of my shin. The veneration of the relic was going on at the time. I hope they didnt hear my utterances! They must not have done, as a gentleman complimented me on my hair-do, and several other people singled me out, asking where I was from and if I was "coming over for refreshments." These were being served in the parish hall adjacent.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Running buffet of ample proportions: salmon, vol-au-vents, salads, sandwiches, hard-boiled eggs, sausage rolls, cold meats, galantine of chicken, sweets and desserts, wines, soft drinks, hot beverages. The friendly man dispensing the drinks asked, "Are you driving?" "No, but I'm driven to drink!" I replied. I had an orange juice with my plate of bits, which I thoroughly enjoyed.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
6 – I couldn't, and I wouldn't. I don't begrudge this sort of thing to folk who are into it, but I wouldn't describe myself as a heavy Catholic.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Slightly. I'm afraid a lot of it was wasted on me.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The well orchestrated choreography of the participants.