Mystery Worshipper: Newman's Own
Church: St Thomas of Canterbury
Location: Fulham, London
Date of visit: Saturday, 25 August 2012, 6:30pm
This Gothic Revival church, its exterior a staple of the Victorian era, is the only complete example of the work of the architect Augustus Pugin in central London. The interior, clearly a product of later redecorating, tends to the potpourri, full of vivid colours that strike the eye with some force. Only the windows behind the sanctuary are of stained glass. Statues of Our Lady, the Sacred Heart, and a few saints are not of high artistic quality. The ceiling features a repeated IHS motif, and the surrounding wall areas enough fleur-de-lis images to honour every Marian feast three times over, with some left over for meditations on the French court were one so inclined. The building and neighbouring graveyard have a rather interesting history, accessible on the website.
There was nothing in the bulletin or announcements that indicated anything beyond normal parish offerings, such as sacramental preparation or registration details for the local primary school. However, the bulletin indicated a temporary reduction in celebrations of the eucharist, and explained that due to being short-staffed, rather than eucharistic ministers being on schedule, parishioners so commissioned would be summoned from the congregation. The website lists a variety of community and church groups, but I could not determine what further ministries the parish may engage in regularly.
Fulham is a residential area of inner west London. The street on which St Thomas of Canterbury is located has none of the bustle of nearby Fulham Broadway or the markets on North End Road. Fulham itself is the sort of "mixed class" neighbourhood common to many London areas now. Fifteen years ago, the area was a combination of tiny bed-sits and some expensive flats, with the affordable housing of the council estates basically blending in with the beginnings of "yuppie" housing. Today, many properties in Fulham are quite expensive, though the less prosperous have not completely disappeared.
I heard others refer to the celebrant/homilist as Father Alan, but his name was not listed in the bulletin. Right before communion, he requested assistance.
What was the name of the service?Vigil Mass
How full was the building?
About 40 per cent full.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
I arrived a bit early. As exposition of the Blessed Sacrament was taking place, no one was anywhere except on their knees. The priest greeted the people in a restrained fashion after mass.
Was your pew comfortable?
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
St Thomas's has exposition of the Blessed Sacrament in the hour preceding the evening eucharist. Everyone was very quiet and reverent. Shortly before the mass began, the priest quoted from the gospel of John about "my flesh is food indeed," then led the congregation in the Divine Praises and a few other prayers in honour of the Blessed Sacrament, and gave the benediction.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good evening," immediately followed by another, more emphatic, "Good evening!" when the congregation did not respond immediately.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Parish mass book and a card with the order of service. Quite recently, the English text of the mass was revised, and, though it is far closer to the text of the Latin missa normativa than past efforts, its being a purely literal translation makes it very awkward. I particularly noticed this because it has been some time since I attended a Roman Catholic mass. With the previous version having been in use since the 1960s, I found the service sheet necessary it is too easy to repeat the words one said for over 40 years, and I kept lapsing into the Anglican responses.
What musical instruments were played?
There was no music at this service. Considering the rather awkward results when a sung alleluia was attempted before the gospel, and my previous experience with other RC parishes, perhaps that was merciful.
Did anything distract you?
The celebrant regularly added comments and improvised prayers, some of the former being brief explanations of rubrics. For example, he said, "Have a seat!" before the scripture reading, and commented about the text's meaning before the reading of the gospel. I'm sure some would find this enriching or helpful, but I found it rather irritating.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Somehow, the first word that comes to my mind is "restrained." There was nothing that struck me. My own tastes in liturgy are formal, and I prefer quiet, yet I had an impression of boredom. I was vividly reminded of my own Roman Catholic youth, when there was great caution about being "distracted" at the liturgy, and fervour was to be kept in check lest one seem prideful or superstitious.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
4 – The gospel for the day was quite glorious, and the homilist made a few superb references, which only led to my greater regret that there were many tangents and a lack of unity in development. I was sorry that someone so clearly capable of developing intelligent, soul-stirring, solid theology had to drown it in other references. I had the strong sense that I was listening to a priest who could have prepared an excellent sermon had he done more editing.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The sermon was especially grounded in the text where Peter asks: "Lord, to whom shall we go?" Father Alan's emphasis was on how Jesus' invitation to us remains a matter of free choice in our response. The three best points in the sermon were about our freedom to choose and love (a favourite scholastic emphasis for me); how Jesus so loved us that he gave himself for us; and a brief but vivid reminder of God as Trinity. He did mention how important it is for one to read the scriptures (understandable, since this does not have a history of being a common RC pursuit), yet he seemed to be at his wits' end to underline that the RC Church exerts no force on members. His repetition about how "doors are not locked from the inside" in the Church, comparisons of how Jesus does not use force to how totalitarian regimes do so, references to extreme evangelical groups, plus such flavouring as stories from his seminary days, seemed to me more to distract than enrich the listener.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
I particularly liked the honest simplicity of the petitions. For example, there were blessings asked for the ongoing paralympic games participants and the government.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
This is a tie between the sermon having three superb sentences and so much added drivel, and the distracting comments throughout as noted above.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
The congregation, understandably for relatively late on a Saturday evening, did not "hang around" at all. About the most interesting reaction afterward was to a large cat that had wandered into the narthex.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
4 – My visit to this rather obscure church was prompted by my having heard that John Henry Newman once preached from its pulpit. However, I'm neither Roman Catholic nor a local resident. Were I both, I'd gravitate to a location where I could have more intellectual and aesthetic enrichment.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. I especially was reminded inwardly of both the recusants, who kept their Roman Catholic faith under duress and persecution from the time of the first Elizabeth to that of the second; and of the discreet, powerful influence the Romans would have had during the period in which this parish was built.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
Potential not being realised.