Mystery Worshipper: Salskov
Church: St Mary the Virgin
Location: Whitby, North Yorkshire, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 22 August 2010, 9:45am
Fortress like, with a battlemented exterior. The interior is a mixture, extended over the years. The ground floor is crammed with original box pews, ranging from a rather lush carpeted room-like affair with red velvet cushions for the local bigwigs, to the slightly sterner numbers lined in green baize, to the frankly plain wood with no upholstery at all. There is a wonderful three decker pulpit; the parish clerk would sit on the lowest level, with the service being conducted by the priest from the middle one, and the sermon preached from the very top. Alterations to the church have resulted in the chancel losing its position as the focus of the service – it's out of sight from much of the seating – but the pulpit being of primary importance. I was told that this reflects the value set on preaching in the 18th century. There is a gallery, also with box pews and very narrow gangways. The church has electricity solely to power the organ and TV monitor; otherwise, it's lit when necessary by candles in the lovely chandelier and the sconces in the gallery. St Mary's was completely bypassed by the renovations of the 19th century, and is one of the most complete relics of 17th and 18th century church organisation in the country.
There are other churches in the town, but this is the parish church. It is also a tourist attraction and historical artifact.
Whitby is still a fishing port, but also a popular tourist resort, and home to the annual regatta and the week long folk festival that was the subject of my visit. The old town is a higgeldy piggeldy jumble of fishermen's cottages, half hidden alleyways, and slightly off centre buildings, punctuated by the fish and chip restaurants for which the area is renowned. In summer it is crammed with visitors, and the steep hills from the harbour up to the more modern parts of the town are populated with walkers, often using walking sticks, crutches, or mobility buggies, making their way up to and down from the windswept campsites at the top. St Mary's Church stands high on the east cliff of Whitby harbour, by the abbey ruins, and is reached by 199 steps from the town, or, if you are a softie with arthritic hips, from the car parks by the abbey or the adjacent youth hostel. I would have been grateful for a magic carpet as I trawled the streets for parking that didn't cost the earth.
The Revd Steven Foster, vicar, assisted by the storyteller Daffy Thomas and the Sussex source singer Bob Lewis.
How full was the building?
Hard to tell. There was a west gallery choir of 50 plus, possibly the same number of parents and children in the box pews, and a gallery band of seven.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
A lady said hello as I walked in carrying my concertina. I asked her if I could join in with the band, and she directed me to the gallery above. As it happened, the music was being directed by the well known Dave Townsend, himself a specialist in west gallery hymns and village band music. Much to my surprise, I recognised many of the other musicians from other folk events. It was rather like old home week up there. They had no idea, though, that I was Mystery Worshipping.
Was your pew comfortable?
The choir pews were lined, including the pews, in slightly worn green baize. But well designed and comfortable to play musical instruments in.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The choir and band had had one rehearsal the previous day in which to put together the music for the service (how had I not heard about it?). Fortunately it was all sight readable, and my neighbour used the time to fill me in on extra instructions such as repeats, instrumental interludes, etc. There was a buzz of preparation in the gallery, and a buzz of quiet talk in the congregational pews.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
The priest morphed from discussing the preparations with his assistants to opening the service, which I caught up with as he was saying: "And a very warm welcome to this our annual service." He made a reference to the duff mike, so that may have been why the start of his sentence was lost.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
A specially printed service booklet that contained the texts of the hymns. The band had printed music in addition.
What musical instruments were played?
Cello, clarinet, and five concertinas, including one bass one. I would have liked a serpent, that wonderful snake-like wind instrument that delivers honking, slightly out of tune, bass notes! Oh, and the vicar played a banjo.
Did anything distract you?
As a last minute comer to the band, I was very busy making sure that I knew what was going on musically. We were somewhat distant from the congregation, so their reactions, with one exception (see below), were not a primary focus for me.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
A very good humoured, atmospheric affair, with lots of laughter and applause after the musical and story telling items. The vicar, Mr Foster, wore his tweed jacket, explaining that it was too cold to robe. No eucharist, but all the other elements of a service: readings, intercessions, etc. Full blooded singing. The highlight of the service for me was the second "musical interlude", which was in fact a story about Adam. When Adam was dying, he sent his son Seth back to the garden to ask St Michael, the angel with the fiery sword, for proof that God was merciful. Michael showed Seth three things: the tree, the serpent, and a baby swaddled in white. "That," said Michael, "is the mercy of God." Michael then gave Seth three seeds from the tree to take back with him. When Seth reached home, Adam was on his deathbed, but was finally able to die in peace. Seth placed the three seeds in Adam's mouth, and green leafy tendrils grew from them. This, we were told, is the origin of the green man sculpture so often seen in folklore, and shows that each of us contains the seeds of both good and evil.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
10 minutes, with a song making it up to 18.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
6 – The vicar was informal, full of jokes, and finished with a song, accompanying himself on the banjo, commenting that this was a tradition and that he liked a captive audience. His song was not one you'd customarily hear in church, but under the circumstances it worked.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The vicar's theme was creation and creating. The church we were in contained examples of all sorts of creation in stone, glass, etc. He went on to expand the theme as creation needing a firm foundation, and this led on to faith. He related his theme to the hymns that were sung at the service.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The music. It was joyful, lively and had content. Bob Lewis sang the folk song "When Adam was created", which fitted the theme perfectly.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
This may seem ungracious, but I did feel that applauding each item tended to disrupt the flow of the service.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Dave Townsend told me something of the customs obtaining in west gallery churches. I'd already done my socialising before the service, so took another look round the various monuments and visited the gift stall.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
It's a fair trade church. There were tea, coffee, sandwiches and cake for sale, and hot waffles with jam. All disposable plates and cups, but very good nonetheless. A chilly wind was blowing even on a glorious day such as this one, so something hot was appreciated.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – This was a special service. I had originally intended to stay for the regular service as well, in order to have some basis for comparison, but it was pre-empted by this one. The church building itself is a powerful persuader, although in winter it would be a case of bundling up well.
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 story telling the origin of the green man.