St Vincent's, Algarve, Praia da Luz, Portugal

St Vincent's, Praia da Luz, Algarve, Portugal


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Vincent's
Location: Praia da Luz, Algarve, Portugal
Date of visit: Sunday, 19 October 2008, 12:00pm

The building

The church is actually the Roman Catholic church of Nossa Senhora da Luz (Our Lady of Light); St Vincent's Anglican congregation uses it with the gracious permission of the Portuguese Catholics. It is a squat whitewashed building with a bell tower. The body consists of a simple nave with whitewashed walls and small windows up near the wooden vaulted ceiling, with stations of the cross under the windows. On entering, the first thing you notice is a large golden altar in a stone archway containing a central statue of Mary carrying baby Jesus; it is flanked by two other statues that appear to be a knight in armour and a priest. To the right of the altar is a large crucifix; to the left is a lectern with the sanctuary light hanging behind it. At the back of the church is a small gallery with a circular window.

The church

The chaplaincy of St Vincent's stretches along the entire south coast of Portugal, known as the Algarve, and comprises three churches situated at Praia da Luz, Almancil and Gorjoes. At this particular church, the Roman Catholics hold their services in Portuguese and English and St Vincent's celebrates two holy communion services each Sunday and one on Thursdays. St Vincent's has other weekly meetings such as Kids Club, Bible study, prayer group meetings, and a choir practice. When I looked in the pew sheet at the names of readers, sidesmen and other officials, I noticed some names that seemed to be Dutch, Scandinavian or Germanic as well as English; so it appears that they minister to people from a very broad range of traditions. On the third Friday of each month there is a Vigil for Missing Children (Portuguese and English). I presume this started with the tragic disappearance of the English toddler Madeline McCann in May 2007. I sincerely pray that she is discovered unharmed and returned to her desperate parents as soon as possible.

The neighborhood

Praia da Luz was originally a small fishing village with little white fishermen's cottages and cobbled streets. It has expanded considerably since the 1960s and is now a sprawl of villas and apartments. It is adjacent to the very picturesque beach of Praia da Luz, a golden sandy beach with deep orange cliffs on either side leading to an azure calm sea. There is a promenade complete with palm trees and benches backed by a cluster of cafes, bars and restaurants. Besides being a holiday resort, Praia da Luz is also home to many ex-pats from the UK, Scandinavia and Germany. The village has an air of tranquility and contentment, but it perhaps becomes livelier at the height of the holiday season in July and August. Opposite the church is the Restaurante da Fortaleza, which is next to a 500 year old fortress perched above the rocks.

The cast

The Revd John Wilson, locum chaplain.

What was the name of the service?

Choral Eucharist.

How full was the building?

It was a small church but was almost completely full – I would say there were about 100 people. The congregation appeared to be predominantly resident ex-pats, mostly retired, but there were also quite a number of younger parents with their children. All were smartly but casually dressed in summer attire. Many carried shoe boxes covered with wrapping paper, the purpose of which became clear later in the service.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

A lady stood behind a stack of books piled high on a table outside the entrance to the church. She greeted me with "Good morning" and handed me a hymn book, a service book and a pew sheet. Two ladies in the congregation smiled and said good morning as well.

Was your pew comfortable?

It was a wooden chair that was as comfortable as you could expect. The chair in front had a little shelf for hymn books but was far too small for the large hymn book I had been given. There were no kneelers, and as I didn't fancy kneeling on the cold marble floor I had to adopt the "Methodist crouch" – a posture that I do not feel comfortable with!

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Various people were doing little jobs and were conversing quietly. Ladies were arranging flowers and adding more boxes to the pile of shoe boxes in front of the altar. People kept disappearing and coming out of a doorway to the right of the altar, which presumably led to the vestry. One gentleman came out with what I thought were two kneelers and I thought to myself, "Oh, this is what you have to do if you want to kneel." However, he and his companion proceeded to sit on them. I didn't think the chairs were that hard!

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. First and foremost would you turn off your mobile phones. We are going to start our service with Hymn 15."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Hymns Old and New; St Vincent's Anglican Church Worship for Ordinary Times; and a pew sheet.

What musical instruments were played?

An electric organ.

Did anything distract you?

The main doors to the church were left wide open, so there was some street noise that we could have done without. About halfway through the service, some loud amplified music started up, and we could definitely have done without that! I found out later that there was live jazz being performed in the restaurant opposite the church – but why it had to be broadcast to the whole of the village is beyond my comprehension.

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

Bearing in mind that the resident congregation must have come from all sorts of Anglican traditions in their original countries, I thought it was middle of the road Anglican worship that perfectly fitted the bill. The hymns were sung lustily by the congregation, led by a choir of six ladies and two gentlemen who provided descant accompaniments and lovely harmonies. Father John was vested in a white alb with embroidery and a red chasuble. He faced the congregation rather than adopting the eastward facing position. At some point in the service the congregation were asked to hold up their shoe boxes to be blessed. These shoe boxes contained presents for underprivileged Portuguese children. After the blessing, people were asked to bring the boxes up to the altar to be placed with the others already there.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

7 minutes.

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

8 – I had the impression that he was reading from a well prepared script.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

It was about Luke the evangelist who, besides being a physician and a painter, was a prolific writer. The intriguing aspect about Luke was that he was a gentile, was not a disciple of Jesus, and in fact never met Jesus. So how did he manage to write so much about the birth, life and death of Jesus in his own gospel and in the Acts of the Apostles, which takes up about a quarter of the New Testament? The source was undoubtedly the Blessed Virgin herself; Mary reminisced about her son to Luke. It is Luke who wrote about the compassion that Jesus had for sinners, outcasts, lepers, shepherds and the poor, and he emphasised the role of women. Luke believed that Jesus Christ is the solution to all our problems. Father John concluded by saying, "May St Luke pray for us and our church today."

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

I felt extremely choked up throughout most of the service. It was a privilege to share in this Church of England service in a foreign country. The singing of the hymns was enthusiastic and the readings were delivered clearly. The prayers of intercession were particularly beautiful; we prayed not only for Father Haynes (the senior chaplain), Father John, and the Bishop of Gibraltar and his assistant, but also for the Roman Catholic pastor of Nossa Senhora da Luz and his superior, whose names I didn't catch.

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

During the sanctus the lights went out and the electric organ stopped. The music director gave one last wave of his baton before retreating into the vestry, apparently to have a go at the switch box. Luckily sunlight was streaming in through the open door and the windows, so everyone carried on with the singing. At length the director returned without having managed to restore the electricity, and the service carried on. Some minutes later, at the precise moment of the elevation of the host, all the lights went back on. Now was that a miracle?!

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

Although we hung around for a little while no one approached us.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There were no after-service refreshments.

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

9 – If I won the lottery and lived here I would definitely want to worship here.

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

Very much so. It was lovely to see how accommodating and Christian the local Roman Catholic church has been to allow Anglicans to use their building for worship.

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

Well, I am writing this report seven days later back in England, and I remember the whole service with fondness as one of the highlights of my holiday in the Algarve. If I have to pin it down to one thing, it would have to be the power cut during the sanctus and the return of electricity at the elevation of the host.

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