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St Mary the Virgin, Willingdon, East Sussex, England


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Mystery Worshipper: Ecclesiastical Flip-flop
Church: St Mary the Virgin
Location: Willingdon, East Sussex, England
Date of visit: Tuesday, 3 July 2007, 7:30pm

The building

Built of stone and flint, parts of this church date back at least 800 years. The tower, which contains a ringing peal of six bells, is the oldest part of the building and may be part of an earlier church, as it is offset at an angle to the present building. The churchyard and graveyard are quite picturesque. The interior features warm brown and beige colours and is quite simple. To the south of the chancel is a Victorian Gothic pulpit. The side chapel at the east end of the north aisle is known as the Ratton Chapel, which belonged to the Parker family of nearby Ratton Manor. On the north side of the chancel are the war memorials in stone tablets. The font is 14th century and is of local green sandstone, but the wooden font cover dates from 1951. Over the font is an organ balcony, on the front of which can be seen the Queen Elizabeth II coat of arms from 1953. The stained glass windows are of some note, variously about the life of Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary and some saints.

The church

There are two eucharistic services each Sunday, with a third (family eucharist) celebrated twice each month. In addition, matins, either said or sung, is offered some Sundays. Evensong with benediction is offered once each month. A variety of services, including a Taizé eucharist, are offered during the week. This is probably a church mainly attended by the locals; I am not to know whether it attracts regular worshippers from further afield. There is a school nearby and at least one other Anglican church in the parish known as the Church on the Trees, where weekly services are held.

The neighborhood

Willingdon is one of the larger villages in East Sussex. Although recent development means that the village is now predominantly urban rather than rural, it is still quite picturesque. The church is located in a residential area.

The cast

The Revd David Charles, who had been ordained two days earlier and was celebrating his first mass today, was the principal celebrant. Concelebrating with him were the Rt Revd David Wilcox, retired Bishop of Dorking; the Revd Martin Onions, vicar; and about a dozen and a half other priests whose names I could not ascertain. The Revd Trevor Jones, SSC, vested in cotta and stole, preached but did not concelebrate. Assisting were two deacons of honour and a full team of servers, acolytes, torchbearers, thurifer and boat-bearer, all vested in hooded albs with girdles. The new priest wore a cloth of gold Roman chasuble, and the two deacons wore matching cloth of gold dalmatics.

What was the name of the service?

Votive Mass of Christ the Eternal High Priest.

How full was the building?

Comfortably full. I would estimate 100 in the congregation, with vacant seats in the north aisle (there is no south aisle).

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Yes. Bishop Wilcox and the vicar both said hello. I also spoke with a few people I had met before in other places.

Was your pew comfortable?

Mattressed box pews; comfortable enough for me.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Chatty until the notices before the service, after which silence reigned supreme. I was hoping to hear the bells, but only three ringers turned up and so ringing was abandoned.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Good evening and welcome" by the vicar from the pulpit, who then announced the opening hymn ("How shall I sing that Majesty"). Following the hymn, we heard "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit" spoken from the back of the church. There followed a procession through the Ratton Chapel to the statue of Our Lady, Mother of the Church and Mother of the clergy, where Father Charles laid a wreath of flowers. The hymn accompanying this was "Ye who own the faith of Jesus."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

None; everything needed was printed in a specially produced service paper.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ. There was a 20-strong choir in the organ loft in the west gallery. The male choristers wore blue cassocks without surplices; the ladies wore blue gowns with white lapels. Medals were worn as appropriate.

Did anything distract you?

Yes, several things. I frequently looked up at the choir behind and above me. Both deacons of honour handled the thurible left-handed. When appropriate, a lady and a gentleman opened and closed the altar rail by sliding the golden bar.

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

It was a concelebrated, choral solemn mass as befitted the occasion. The Gloria, Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei were all sung to Darke in F. There were bells and smells, incense having been granted as a one-off concession at the request of the new priest. The eucharistic prayer that begins "Lord, you are holy indeed, the source of all holiness" was used. At the consecration, the principal concelebrant genuflected before and after lifting the sacred elements.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

12 minutes.

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

8 – Father Jones' message was clear and unmistakable.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

God's judgement was not in the recent terrorist attacks, nor was it in the recent floods in northern England, as some clerics seem to have suggested. Jesus shows us the way; his life is how he judges the world. The saints show us judgment by their way of holiness: St Maria Goretti, who chose death over rape by an intruder, and who forgave her murderer as she lay dying in hospital; St Francis, who received the stigmata; St Vincent de Paul, who worked for the poor in France; St Clare, who taught us to place our minds in the mirror of the soul, i.e. Christ. We need to reflect Christ in our lives, becoming more like Jesus every day. Humility, poverty, chastity and obedience is Jesus' judgement. Jesus is the way, the truth and the life.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

It was heavenly all the way through, but of particular mention, the Sanctus sung to Darke in F – one of my favourite settings – going into the consecration prayer intoned beautifully by Father David, then the Agnus Dei also sung to Darke in F.

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

Not very much, but there has got to be something for the fires of hell. Very well, then – the words of the hymns were printed on the service paper as supplied to the congregation, but it seemed that the choir were singing from a hymn book, and they led the singing using slightly different words out of harmony with the congregation. For this reason, I had to be careful not to sing too loudly.

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

That seemed rather pointless. Although I was there as a first timer, there were people present whom I had met before elsewhere, and there was ample opportunity to chat.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There was a reception and refreshments in the hall but no coffee. Rather, there were glasses of wine and nibbles consisting of various savouries. Yum-yum! During the reception, the new priest was presented with a white Gothic chasuble.

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

8 – My score of 8 is a bit provisional as I have not been present for Sunday worship, which I am told is lower down the candle than was the case tonight. If tonight's service were the norm, I would definitely give it a 10.

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

Yes, in every way.

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

The long procession of concelebrating priests.

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