St Mary the Virgin, Oxenhope, West Yorkshire, England


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Mystery Worshipper: Salskov
Church: St Mary the Virgin
Location: Oxenhope, West Yorkshire, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 6 December 2009, 10:00am

The building

The foundation stone of this Norman style church, the work of the 19th century architect Ignatius Bonomi (who designed one of England's first railway bridges) and his apprentice John Cory, was laid in 1849. Its low square tower and rounded arches harmonise with the generally low buildings of the village. The church sits in a small graveyard. The tower houses a peal of eight bells. Inside, there is some interesting stained glass by William Morris, whose colourful and imaginative creations can be found throughout England. The various church fittings were gifted at various times.

The church

This is a village church, and the members regard themselves as a church family - see the website photo. The church acts as a focal point for social as well as more overtly religious groups. Non-churchgoers as well as members of the parish family are welcome at all of the many and varied activities taking place. Wider activities in the diocese of Bradford are also advertised. The parish produces an outreach magazine three times each year that is delivered to every household in Oxenhope.

The neighborhood

This is Brontë country, a windswept land of heather and wild moors, where the Brontë sisters lived and wrote their famous novels. Despite the much maligned wind farms, in many respects the area is unchanged since the 19th century. This especially applies to wind and weather! Buildings are of solid Yorkshire sandstone, chunky, darkened from old time factory smoke, and weathered. The traditional building materials still outnumber modern brick and concrete, at least outwardly. Most modern builds are required to be faced with stone/stone effect to match the traditional buildings.

The cast

The Rt Revd Colin Ogilvie Buchanan, retired Bishop of Woolwich, presided at holy communion and administered the order of confirmation. Assisting were the Revd June Medhurst, priest in charge, and the Revd Ken Medhurst, associate priest.

What was the name of the service?

Confirmation and Holy Communion.

How full was the building?

There were about 30 in the congregation, including confirmand and family. There were also nine choristers and the three clergy.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Mrs Medhurst shook my hand and asked if I was visiting. A couple of sidespeople handed me service and information sheets.

Was your pew comfortable?

Well, it was a pew, but it had what I've never seen in a church before: instead of the long flat cushions, it was equipped with a long flat rag rug style bum comforter. Quite effective, too. Altogether fine, even for a slightly elongated service such as this one. The kneelers were embroidered, one with St George subduing a rather traumatised dragon.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

There was a bustle of preparation. I was asked if I was congregation, the confirmation family, or a visitor. I think the idea was to keep the confirmation family together. But I was invited to sit where I chose.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

Several notices were given, but the true opening was: "We meet in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The service booklet, especially prepared for the occasion. There were Bibles in every pew, but no hymn books.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ. Digital. An an informational booklet notes with regret that in 2008 the original Fitton and Hayley pipe organ had been deemed unfit for repair, and replaced with this instrument. The church is currently without a choir director, but everyone carried on bravely.

Did anything distract you?

There was heating, but my feet were cold! And this in spite of boots and thermal underwear. There's nothing like prolonged rain and wind to drain heat from an old building. Also (and I thought this a plus), the main west door remained open during the service, while a glass inner door – a single sheet of glass, no frame, with engraved central motif of cross and dove – was shut. The effect was lovely and light, but I suspect that a good deal of fresh Yorkshire air whistled in round the edges.

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

An engaging mixture of the traditional liturgy for the second Sunday of Advent and a fairly jolly confirmation. The mass was sung – the New English Mass by Patrick Appleford, and the congregation joined in with the setting. As the Advent candle was being lit, we sang a variation on "The Holly and the Ivy," which I enjoyed. The rest of the hymns were a mixture of traditional and happy clappy, including Sidney Carter's upbeat hymn "One More Step," which I hadn't heard since the highly respected British journalist and broadcaster Rabbi Lionel Blue sang it on the BBC Radio 4 programme Thought for the Day. Bishop Buchanan seemed especially pleased when Tom, the teenager whose confirmation was taking place, renewed his baptismal vows, and the bishop managed to sprinkle as much of the congregation as he could.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

15 minutes.

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

6 – Bishop Buchanan could be heard clearly without the PA system, but the latter kept varying its sound level, which was a bit off-putting. His style was at times serious, at times jocular. He related his sermon on a personal level to Tom, reminding him that confirmation was much more than simply an occasion to throw a party. The bishop referred to notes as he spoke, and I thought he could have made his point in less time. I come from a tradition of short sermons!

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The bishop took as his text Philippians 1:3-11 (St Paul prays that Christ's followers may remain blameless until the Second Coming). The order of confirmation is an affirmation of faith. St Paul did not have to scold the Philippians (unusual for him), as God's hold on them was sure, as it would be on Tom the confirmand.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

Tom's presentation by his sponsor. This was quite a full speech, warm and affectionate. I also enjoyed the sprinkling of the congregation, especially as I was out of reach of the water. There was a family party element to the service, which made it real rather than a formality.

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

My cold feet and the temperamental PA system.

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

I was approached by a lady who led me to the refreshments and chatted to me about the church and its activities. People were interested to know how I came to be there. I was able honestly to tell them that I had family in the village even though this was my first visit to the church.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Coffee served in china cups, and cake served on an Oxenhope Sunday school china plate! Some fair trade literature was scattered about, but I don't know about the tea and coffee.

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

9 – If I were local, I would build a relationship with this church. It's homely and friendly.

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


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

The bishop's devilish glee as he sprinkled the congregation.

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