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2133: St Oswald and St Thomas of Canterbury, Chester, England
St Oswald & St Thomas, Chester
Mystery Worshipper: Torold.
The church: St Oswald and St Thomas of Canterbury, Chester, England.
Denomination: Church of England, Diocese of Chester.
The building: Large sandstone Gothic-style, the work of the Victorian architect Sir George Gilbert Scott, dating from 1869-72. There is a fine west window by the noted stained glass craftsman Charles Eamer Kempe. The interior, however, is gloomy and typically Anglo-Catholic: stations of the cross, Madonna and Child and Our Lady of Walsingham statues, "big six" candles on the altar, the reserved Sacrament in the Lady chapel, lots of gilt and vestments. This is the only church in Chester with a long tradition of Anglo-Catholic worship.
The church: Browsing their website, it would seem that they are big on social events. Low mass and sung mass are celebrated each Sunday, with solemn evensong and benediction on major festivals. There are two masses during the week. Formerly part of the Chester Team Parish, in 2005 it reverted back to a parish church in its own right.
The neighbourhood: Chester, near the Welsh border, is one of the best preserved walled cities in the British Isles. The church is quite close to a big sports complex. There are also some large Victorian and Edwardian houses in the immediate area. The church is just out of city centre, next to part of the university.
The cast: The Revd Peter Walsh, vicar, was the celebrant and preacher. The deacon and sub-deacon were unnamed.
The date & time: 20 February 2011, 10.00am.

What was the name of the service?
Sung Mass.

How full was the building?
Less than half full, approximately 65 people, plus a choir of ten in the chancel and four servers.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
On the way in to church, I spoke to a friendly gent getting his second wind on the porch steps. We had a few pleasant words. Upon entering, we were given the hymn book and service sheet with a pleasant "Good morning."

Was your pew comfortable?
Yes. Wooden chair with red seat pad.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Chatty, everyone greeting each other: "Hello, dear." "Hello, John, how's your mum?" etc. The vicar, two minutes before the start, read the marriage banns.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
New English Hymnal and service booklet.

What musical instruments were played?

Did anything distract you?
Many things distracted me! There was a lot to look at – well, there is, isn't there, in Anglo-Catholic churches! Quite fascinating. My gaze was often drawn away from the goings-on at the altar to look at the colourful stations of the cross, the flickering votive lights, the three sanctuary lamps, etc. A small child kept up a cacophony of baby babble and high-pitched shrieks during the quieter moments. Another small child was enjoying running around the back of church, parent in hot pursuit.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
High church, high jinks, bells and smells, birettas on, birettas off, lots of crossing ourselves and bowing. The couple next to me virtually had their noses touching the floor at times. This congregation knows what it likes and does it well, as do the servers. The priest's communion wafer was enormous, concelebration size, and rose above the altar at the elevation like the rising moon.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
13 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – Father Walsh delivered his sermon without notes from the bottom of the chancel steps. I couldn't watch him for long as he habitually took four little steps forward and four steps back. His voice was the sort that rose and fell and was rather difficult to listen to.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Father is leaving soon for a new parish. His sermon was about how he came to be a priest in the first place and his journey thus far. Just when you are feeling happy and settled, God comes along and throws a spanner in the works. What you have built, you leave for someone else to work upon.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
I wasn't "heaven sent". I didn't really feel any atmosphere. It was all rather bland and stagy, but the choir enjoyed themselves singing the post-communion motet. Overall, the music was good. The organist received a flutter of applause at the end of his concluding voluntary.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
There was certainly a lot of smoke in the sanctuary, putting me in mind of the fiery furnace! Perhaps that is where I am heading.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Several people spoke to me (but not my co-pewees). The man who read the first lesson brought me a potted history of the church. He also enlightened me as to the outgoing parish priest's achievements and how much he will be missed and what in the world are we going to do without him. The vicar's wife came over and had a chat – a very friendly and pleasant lady.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Tea, coffee and orange squash plus hob-nobs and half-coated chocolate biscuits. I originally ordered tea and the tea lady said she'd make a fresh pot for me. I had orange squash in the end as it was already poured out. I was offered biscuits too. Cups and saucers were standard parish hall crockery.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
6 – I felt the whole thing lacked joy and warmth and wondered if they were just going through the motions. It was almost like a well rehearsed ritual that they had done hundreds of times.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Not especially.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The acolytes raising their candles in time to the ringing of the tinkling sanctuary bells! I can see and hear it now.
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