Mystery Worshipper: Redpriest
Church: St Patrick's on the Hill
Location: Hogsback, South Africa
Date of visit: Sunday, 23 March 2014, 10:00am
This tiny church began life in the 1930s as a thatched rondavel (a round stone hut) for private devotion. When it became an Anglican chapel it was extended by adding on a second rondavel, giving the church its idiosyncratic butternut squash shape. In 2010, the church burned down but was quickly rebuilt thanks to donations from all over the world and reopened within a year. Now, improved and (we hope) fireproofed, it stands on the brow of a hill overlooking the spectacular Amathole Mountains and the Tyume River valley, with a prayer path winding down the hill through the beautifully restored lush montane gardens.
St Patrick serves a village population of just over a thousand, plus surrounding farms. It is part of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa but other Protestant denominations get to use it on alternate Sundays (Catholics apparently have to descend the mountains to find a place of worship).
Hogsback is one of the most fascinating places in a fascinating country: a rambling village atop a mountain, set in thick indigenous forests. The inhabitants are a mix of hippies, artists, crafters, and old ladies who make jam and elderflower wine. The place has a palpably mystical and spiritual aura about it and has attracted plenty of New Agers (although the oft-repeated story of the Tolkein connection is completely untrue). The mystical aspect of the place is sometimes at odds with the essentially conservative elderly village folk.
The Revd Margaret Fourie, resident priest, and a woman subdeacon whose name I didn't get.
What was the name of the service?Holy Eucharist
How full was the building?
The small church was full, although there were quite a few visitors, including some bleary survivors of a raucous, weekend-long old girls' school reunion.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
On arrival we were greeted matter-of-factly and given prayer books, etc. While we waited for the service to start, the church warden came round and asked us, and all the other strangers, for our names and where we came from. The man sitting in front of us turned out to be a visiting American professor who had worked at a nearby university. When St Patrick's burned down in 2010, he sent money that went a long way toward the rebuilding of the church.
Was your pew comfortable?
The new pews were comfortable enough, although there were no kneelers.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
It's a village church. Everybody knows everybody. Very casual, bits of quiet chat and a generally unhurried atmosphere. The pianist played gentle classics.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning, everyone. Evelyn, there's a space at the front here."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Anglican Prayer Book (1989); pew leaflet; Songs of Fellowship.
What musical instruments were played?
Piano, played quite competently.
Did anything distract you?
The man two rows in front of us was caught in a shaft of intense light coming through a window in the roof. For a while he looked as if he might get taken up to heaven (or at least be beamed up to the mother ship). For the rest, the beauty of the surroundings made my eyes wander through the windows from time to time.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Distinctly old school low church: one priest, one subdeacon, no processions, no paraphernalia. No clappy, no shouty, although Mother Margaret did do a little jiving during one of the choruses.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – The priest knew her audience. In fact, she gave two addresses: a mini one for the benefit of the children before they were let out until the communion, and the sermon proper. Her style was casual, without notes: motherly, with the odd quip, delivered simply (there is no pulpit in the church).
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The children's talk was about dealing with disappointment, and the necessity for trusting in God's good sense rather than resorting to any of the many alternative solutions favoured by the less conventional of Hogsback's population. It was National Water Week in South Africa; the gospel reading was John 4 (Jesus and the woman at the well). Apart from the expected exhortations to strive for the water of life rather than material inputs, there was reference to stewardship of resources like water in a semi-arid country, and some slightly rambling excursions on Jesus empowering women, and the Samaritan woman talking back to him.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The overall atmosphere of the church and its enveloping friendliness (all the visitors were welcomed by name during the notices) gave a warm, fuzzy feeling. The peace carried on a while as people started chatting about where they came from. Some villages can make visitors feel like outsiders; this one didn't.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The songs: the worst type of doggerel verses sung to the worst type of revivalist tent choruses. The congregation seemed to enjoy them but I've spent too long singing quality hymnody (old and new) to have any time for this stuff. My wife appeared to know all these choruses and afterwards slightly shamefacedly confessed that she'd been brought up on them at school. There was one hymn at the end.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
No time to look lost. After a brisk hug from the priest, we were swept around the corner to where the refreshments were waiting.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Tea, coffee, fruit juice, and lemon and chocolate sponges. On the terrace overlooking the gardens, the forests and the valley views beyond, we chatted with the visiting American professor and a young Anglo-Saffer couple recently moved from Devon to the Eastern Cape. The locals were all back inside the church for a vestry meeting.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 – While this was overall a positive experience, I have reservations about the innate conservatism of the church. And if I wanted any decent music, I'd have to drive a couple of hours to the nearest cathedral, in Grahamstown. But it is heart-wrenchingly beautiful.
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 beauty of the surroundings and the warmth of the people.