St Wilfrid's, Harrogate, North Yorkshire, England

St Wilfrid's, Harrogate, North Yorkshire, England


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Mystery Worshipper: Sursum Corda
Church: St Wilfrid's
Location: Harrogate, North Yorkshire, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 12 July 2009, 10:00am

The building

Without a shadow of doubt, this is one of the most beautiful parish churches I have ever visited. The building was made possible through the generosity of two wealthy sisters who happened to stop at a hotel in Harrogate one night in 1902. One of the sisters died during the night, and her body was discovered the next morning in an attitude of prayer. The other sister championed a major fund raising campaign for the new church, contributing handsomely from her own resources in memory of her sister. The building was designed by Temple Moore, the noted architect of many churches. Alas, Moore did not live to see the completion of St Wilfrid's. His son-in-law, Leslie Moore, supervised the work to its completion in 1935. The exterior, constructed in mellow honey-colored Tadcaster stone, has a minster-like appearance. It is truly Gothic Revival at its finest. In every possible detail, St Wilfrid's is a tribute to the intentions of the Oxford Movement, and whether viewed overall or examined detail by detail, it is simply awesome breathtaking even! But I should mention the baptismal font, as I regarded it as a distraction (see below). It is set on a stepped plinth over which hover flames and a descending dove. Eye-catching but, I think, somewhat out of character with the rest of the building.

The church

They sponsor numerous organisations all documented on their website. They celebrate two masses each Sunday, along with morning and evening prayer and a vigil mass on Saturday evening. In addition, morning and evening prayer and one celebration of mass take place each weekday.

The neighborhood

Harrogate is a popular tourist destination for people seeking to "take the waters" of its spa, rich in iron, sulphur and salt; to enjoy its mild, dry climate; or to sip Yorkshire tea at the elegantly traditional Betty's Tea Room. St Wilfrid's is located in a fairly up-market part of town. The immediate neighbourhood is characterised by large houses - villas almost - with well-kept lawns and flower gardens.

The cast

There were five priests at the altar. The celebrant was the Revd Mark Sowerby, team rector (who two weeks later would become the next Bishop of Horsham). The Revd Tim Burrell, assistant curate, preached. The organist was Timothy Gray, and the choirmaster James MacDonald.

What was the name of the service?

Sung Parish Mass with Baptism.

How full was the building?

Pretty full – 150 or so. There seemed to be a goodly representation of humanity in the congregation, all fairly well-heeled and familiar with all the trappings of traditional catholic worship.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Yes, and with an excellent 20-page service book.

Was your pew comfortable?

Perfectly fine old-style church chairs, joined to one another in rows, with a comfortable straw/raffia covered seat. Kneelers were hung on hooks on the seats in front of us.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

We barely made it on time, but based on the service book's directions, I suspect it was very quiet. There are detailed instructions on "the need for preparation", which end with the words "silence for reflection" and suggestions for private prayers.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

Everyone recited the collect for purity: "Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open..."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The aforementioned service book and the English Hymnal.

What musical instruments were played?

The magnificent organ, an opus of the Harrison and Harrison firm of Durham. Installed in 1928, it has been certified by the British Institute of Organ Studies as an "instrument of historic importance."

Did anything distract you?

The baptismal font, although fortunately our backs were to it most of the time. The other eye-catching distraction was the enormous series of bas-relief stations of the cross on the north and south aisles. Designed by the early 20th century sculptress Frances Darlington, who also designed the frieze in the foyer of the Harrogate Theatre, they are said to be modelled on church members of that day.

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

Traditional catholic worship at its ultimate best, and with very good music. Father Sowerby intoned beautifully. The choir of men, boys and girls sang the Stanford mass setting very well. And the organist, Mr Gray, led the congregational singing from the organ with plenty of drive and colour. The building is also blessed with an excellent sound system.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

12 minutes.

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

8 – Father Burrell preached well, though it's a pity he hadn't memorised the sermon. Looking down at his text took away from direct eye contact, which was a pity.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

His subject was "The Mission of the Twelve," in which he described how Our Lord had concluded that the apostles needed a short period of practical training. Their mission was not only a spiritual one, but also to bring about physical and mental healing. It shows the importance of being open to the word of God, and of being active, not passive, followers. The Twelve were called away from their ordinary work; only a few of us are literally called to preach the gospel. The rector, soon to be Bishop of Horsham, is one who is so called. No matter how full our lives may be, there is always room for more – just as there is room in a jar full of golf balls for some pebbles, and then for some sand, and then for some wine. Pay attention to the things that are critical to your happiness. Spend time with your family. Ensure there is time to meet your friends. Take your partner out to dinner. Have time for hobbies and outside interests. Make sure there is time for relaxation and holidays. There will always be time to clean the house, polish the car, or do the gardening. And no matter how full our lives may seem, there's always room for a couple of glasses of wine with a friend. This is true no less for the Bishop of Horsham and his wife Ruth than for the average man in the pew.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

One really high spot, in a generally heavenly service, was the Gloria in Excelsis, which was a congregational setting by Peter Jones. It was quite new to me, but with the benefit of the music in the service book, it was easy to pick up. I also enjoyed the very end of the mass, when we sang a rather upbeat Salve Regina facing the shrine of Our Lady in the north aisle.

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

One of the lectors missed his cue. There was an awkward prolonged silence between the psalm and the second lesson. Finally a lady from the congregation made her way up to the lectern, at which point the gentleman who was supposed to give the reading suddenly materialised. The lady gave him a nod and discreetly withdrew.

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

We didn't have to look lost for long. We were invited to the church hall and were introduced to the rector en route.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Coffee was served in proper cups. We had plenty of good conversation about the history of St Wilfrid's and its traditions.

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

10 – Ecstatic!

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 sheer unexpectedness of it all. We had "discovered" St Wilfrid's from their website. But we had not anticipated the architectural size and beauty of a place that verged on cathedral-like proportions.

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