St Mary's, Penzance, England


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Mary's
Location: Penzance, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 4 April 2010, 10:30am

The building

St Mary's was built between 1832 and 1835. It features ornate carvings on the inside and attractive Stations of the Cross around the walls. There is a large stained glass window over the altar and a balcony running around the church.

The church

A thriving community with activities such as Mothers' Union, Bible study, and contemplative prayer groups.

The neighborhood

Mention Penzance to anyone and they are apt to think of Gilbert and Sullivan's Frederic and Mabel and the very model of a modern major-general. Penzance is a small town in Cornwall, on Mount's Bay facing the English Channel. In 1755 the town was hit by a tsunami generated by the great Lisbon Earthquake, which caused almost total destruction of Lisbon but little if any damage to Penzance. The coming of the railway in the early 19th century made the town's beaches popular with invalids and tourists alike, although one critic described the railway station as "a large dog's house of the nastiest and draughtiest kind" (it has since been renovated). Today's Penzance has a mixed economy consisting of light industrial, tourism, and retail businesses. However, like the rest of Cornwall, housing remains dear, wages low, and unemployment high. The scenery is pleasant, though, and just outside the church is a wonderful view of Mount's Bay.

The cast

The Revd Keith Owen, vicar, and assorted acolytes.

What was the name of the service?

Sung Mass.

How full was the building?

About three-quarters full downstairs; the balcony was empty.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Yes. A lady gave me an order of service, smiled and said good morning.

Was your pew comfortable?

It was comfortable - the pew had a thickish cushion.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

It was silent - no noise: wonderful! The start of the service was denoted with the single chime of a bell.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Good morning and welcome to this very special service on Easter Day."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The New English Hymnal and a printed liturgy for the day.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ, piano and saxophone. A small keyboard accompanied the choir. And numerous bells that the congregation had been invited to bring and ring during the Easter Gloria and alleluias.

Did anything distract you?

Toward the end of the service a cat wandered in. I think it had a bell around its neck, but I could be just imagining that! It was great fun watching the congregation suddenly feeling something by their legs and jumping in the air. At one stage the cat stared me straight in the eye and seemed to be saying, "I know you. You're a Mystery Worshipper!" I trusted the cat to be completely discreet.

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

Very formal high Anglican, but at the same time very accessible. Lots of incense and processions and bells in evidence. All the readings, and particularly the gradual hymn, were done from the centre of the church, with everyone turning to face the reader. This gave the sense that we were all a part of the worship. The mass itself, too, felt very holy and brought people together at the rail to celebrate Easter.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

10 minutes.

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

8 – Lots of references to popular culture, especially television, which made the sermon very accessible. The vicar was easy to listen to and illustrated his sermon with recent events in the church life, which was helpful.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The sermon was at the end of a Holy Week series and was entitled: "All's well that ends well." He talked about the hard work of the congregation throughout Holy Week, which resulted in practical and spiritual preparation for Easter. He highlighted the need for joy to be something we create when we are in touch with God; then we can say we have real joy. We must recognise that God has won the victory. which he is willing to share with us. This gift is what we describe as grace. It's a free gift to us. This is scary because it may mean that we need to change our attitudes.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The beautiful stained glass at the front of the church was complemented by the bright sunshine playing on to the altar. That, and the choir singing and the organ playing, felt very sacred. The peace being passed seemed very genuine and easy, no embarrassment as we sometimes find. The congregation appeared to be at ease with itself.

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

The intercessory prayers felt rather like going through the motions. People were prayed for, but it appeared to be reading a list without time for us to think through the prayer. I would have liked to see someone from the congregation leading these prayers.

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

Some people spoke with me and were very friendly. One older lady was teasing me a bit as I got the tea, which really made me feel at home. The congregation struck a good balance by welcoming a newcomer and yet still leaving some space not to feel too crowded.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There was a sign saying the church was a fair trade church, but no evidence of which teas and coffee were being used. The chocolates (yes, chocolates!) we were given after the service were not fairly traded.

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

8 – I'd want to try it a few more times, but I could imagine finding a spiritual home here.

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

Yes. It was Easter Day and a different style to what I am used to, and yet I found it really accepting and worshipful. The incense, the processions and the bells all added to the intensity of the experience.

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

The way I was drawn into the worship through the formality of the liturgy.

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