St Mary's Tower is all that remains of the medieval parish church of the village of Hornsey. It stands tall in a spacious and attractive churchyard that now functions as a municipal park, the once adjoining church having been demolished. The tower is of brown stone with pale dressings. What was once the arch, giving on to the nave of the church, was the backdrop to the service. An altar had been set up on a small paved area.
Now that Hornsey has been absorbed into Greater London, the current parish church of Hornsey is a 1960s building half a mile west in Cranley Gardens. The clergy and parish from there hold an outdoor eucharist at the old tower on Sunday afternoons in the summer months (and weather permitting, since there is no cover). To judge by the church website and the notices and announcements in the service sheet, there's a lot going on in this parish, which seems to be known both as 'Hornsey Parish Church' and 'St Mary with St George, Hornsey.' Apart from daily services, there is a range of social activities and social action projects.
Hornsey is a district in north London. Originally a village, it dates back to the thirteenth century. It became a part of greater London in 1965. The churchyard has many trees and monuments from earlier centuries, but part is laid to grass lawns with flower beds and was being well used by families and groups of young singles to relax in the late summer sun. They seemed mostly to ignore the eucharist happening nearby, and there was no disturbance of the worship, just the far-off background sound of traffic, children playing at a distance, and birdsong – lots of it – which was a delightful accompaniment. The park is presumably still consecrated as a churchyard, and there was a happy co-existence of uses in a shared green space in the inner suburb.
A priest presided at the eucharist, the rector of the parent church preached, a young man played keyboard, and lay people read and gave intercessions.
What was the name of the service?Open Air Eucharist at the Tower.
How full was the building?
The outdoor worship area was among rose bushes, shrubbery and pathways, so for a newcomer it was a bit difficult to tell who was part of the congregation and who was not. When I arrived five minutes before curtain up, there was seemingly just the man putting out the chairs. But about eight to ten more suddenly appeared like sprites out of the greenery. Most appeared under 35 years of age. A baby of contented disposition occupied a papoose worn by her father.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
A cheery 'Hello' from the man putting out chairs, soon followed by one from the priest, who emerged from the room at the foot of the tower, which seemed to be standing in as vestry.
Was your pew comfortable?
It was a folding wooden chair, but comfortable, and to my surprise it didn’t wobble at all on the uneven paving.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
For me it was slightly uncertain, as I wondered if it would be a congregation of one – me! But I relaxed and listened to the birdsong and enjoyed the late summer afternoon sun. As I did so, the appropriateness of a eucharist in a public park grew on me.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
‘In the name of the Father …’
What books did the congregation use during the service?
A service sheet for the day with the readings and two hymns set out in full. All very well organised and easy to follow.
What musical instruments were played?
An electronic keyboard.
Did anything distract you?
Occasionally the distant sounds of trains and traffic reminded me that we were a short distance from a busy thoroughfare, but it soon became irrelevant and stopped being a distraction.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
A simple modern Catholic eucharist – en plein air.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 — It looked as though the rector had obviously written his text in full, but he kept an informal preaching style. Perhaps the written version was for the parish website? Or perhaps it was the second time that day he had preached the same sermon, having used it at the morning version in church! He avowedly avoided an in-depth discussion of what comes across like Jesus’ bad manners – throwing a hissy fit during the encounter with the Syrophoenician woman). He observed that Christ is human as well as divine.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
He stuck to the readings of the day, which were a particularly nourishing pair: James 2:1, 10-17 (do good works and do not play favourites), and as gospel, Mark 7:24-37 (Jesus casts out a demon and heals a deaf mute). He applied the readings in various ways to the life of the parish. Intercessory prayer is at the heart of parish life, for example, and that is why they keep the church open for as much of the week as they can. However, following James, faith must be supported by works. So, there was a group increasing the accessibility of the church building to all. Intercessory prayer may not change the way things happen, he concluded, but he knew it certainly changed us.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
A meaty sermon in the open air – I think that’s a first for me.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Nothing hellish, but I didn’t think our hymns worked. There were too few of us, and in the open air our voices melted away. We needed an old school resonant church building to help us out.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
There wasn’t a great deal of hanging around. We helpfully folded up and stacked our chairs and melted back into the churchyard shrubbery from which we had emerged. The celebrant and rector both thanked me for my attendance.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none, although pubs and coffee shops are available in the High Street adjacent.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 — It certainly tempted me to go to an indoor service at Hornsey Parish Church. And next summer, if I get up just too late one Sunday to make it to the morning service at my usual place, I might well return for the Open Air Eucharist at the Tower. It is a delightful idea.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
Those readings. Juicy.