St Mary the Virgin, Swanley, Kent

St Mary the Virgin, Swanley, Kent, England


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Mary the Virgin
Location: Swanley, Kent, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 24 July 2005, 10:00am

The building

Dating from 1901, this brick-built church consists only of an apsidal chancel, a three-bay nave, and a north aisle, the original design having never been completed. A narthex and hall were added at the west end in 1976. The interior is light but austere, albeit oddly proportioned given the shortness of the nave, with a free-standing altar set prominently in the middle of the chancel.

The church

This is a Forward in Faith parish under the episcopal oversight of the Bishop of Fulham, with a long tradition of Anglo-Catholic worship. The congregation included a number of children and teenagers as well as the usual middle-aged and elderly types, and appears to have a wide range of activities going on both for church members and for the community as a whole.

The neighborhood

This part of Swanley (as distinct from the old village a mile or so away) sprung up about a hundred years ago around the railway junction. Many housing estates have appeared since then, but the church remains in a prominent position close to the commercial centre of the area. There is an ASDA (Britain's answer to Wal-Mart) nearby, and their car park proved very convenient!

The cast

The Revd James McCluskey, assistant curate, presided, and the preacher was the Revd Michael Brundle, vicar. The deacon was Russell Stagg, a parish reader, and the subdeacon was a prospective ordinand whose name I didn't catch. There were also two acolytes, a thurifer, and a small choir of five. The organist, as I was later to learn, was one Dougie Blue, who plays frequently at this church along with others on a rota basis.

What was the name of the service?

Sung Mass.

How full was the building?

About two-thirds full. This is a small church, and I reckon that there were about 100 present.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

A sidesperson handing out paperwork smiled pleasantly and said "Good morning." Several others greeted me after I sat down.

Was your pew comfortable?

No pews – comfy well-padded chairs instead, and nicely embroidered hassocks as well.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

There was a fair bit of conversation, although nothing too loud or obtrusive. The organist was playing what sounded like a Bach prelude, and it seemed a pity that people weren't listening more attentively – he really was good (see below).

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Just a very well-produced little booklet complete with hymns, readings and the text of the mass (the Roman rite), together with thoughts on the gospel and the parish notices for the coming week. I take it that something similar is produced for each Sunday – today's was apparently given (or financed?) by one of the ladies of the church in memory of her late husband.

What musical instruments were played?

The organ only, but it is a very fine instrument, not too overpowering, and was beautifully played by Dougie, who was obviously thoroughly enjoying himself.

Did anything distract you?

Hmmm... the burgundy upholstery on the chairs clashed horribly with the green vestments of the clergy, but apart from that there was really nothing to distract one from worship. Even a toddler just in front of me playing with toys (thoughtfully provided by the church) did so very quietly!

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

Unashamedly Anglo-Catholic, with a full set of sacred ministers plus the preacher, bells, incense (lots of it) and well-drilled servers in cassock and cotta, but with a good deal of active lay participation as well. The choir, sad to say, did not really make much of an impression, but I understand that they were rather down in numbers today, the school holidays having just begun.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

12 minutes.

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

6 – Father Brundle spoke clearly, but I think he was reading from his notes for much of the time, and he did stumble over them once or twice.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Father spoke about the day's gospel, the parable of the man who found a hidden treasure in a field. He said that in a fallen and sinful world (he cited the recent suicide bombings in London as a prime example) the kingdom of God is often difficult to find or to see. However, it is not God's way to hand us the kingdom on a plate, as it were, but to give us his grace as we continue to discern and search for it – and, indeed, it is this continual searching that helps us to grow as Christians.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The superb organ-playing, together with the clouds of incense – and singing "Blessed and praised be Jesus Christ in the most holy Sacrament" immediately after the end of the eucharistic prayer.

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

Grrr... as is too often the case, the congregation had no access to the music for the mass setting. It was one I didn't know, and in the end I more or less gave up trying to sing along.

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

Well, for once I made the first move. I enquired as to the name of the organist, but the person I spoke to didn't know. However, she introduced me to a charming gentleman who had been a member of the church for nearly seventy years. He answered my questions, took me into the hall, led me to the coffee queue, and filled me in on the parish's history. He also introduced me to the parish reader and gave me the church's welcome pack with details of activities, mission statement and so on.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Fair trade coffee in a china cup, with a nice selection of biscuits and home-made buns and things. The coffee was rather lukewarm, as a party using the hall the previous evening had switched the urn off and it hadn't been switched back on early enough to heat the water sufficiently.

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

5 – I thoroughly enjoyed the service despite the unknown mass setting, but (and it's a big but) I do not agree at all with Forward in Faith. That, and only that, might make me think twice about worshipping here regularly if I lived in the area.

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


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

Dougie Blue, the virtuoso organist!

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