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  1075: St Mary the Virgin, Bourne Street, London

St Mary the Virgin, Bourne Street, Chelsea, London

Mystery Worshipper: Phyllis Stein.
The church: St Mary the Virgin, Bourne Street, Chelsea, London.
Denomination: Church of England.
Comment: We have received a comment on this report.
The building: A late 19th century building, unprepossessing from the outside, but with a fairly elaborate baroque interior.
The neighbourhood: Just around the corner is the extremely affluent Sloane Square. The church is in a street of small mews houses which probably cost more than the average person earns in a lifetime.
The cast: For the evensong, three priests in cassocks and surplices and one priest in a gold cope. For the benediction, two in cassocks and surplices and three in birettas, lace albs and gold copes. The pew sheet informed me that the parish priest is Fr Alasdair Coles and the assistant priest Fr Jonathan Ewer. I don't know whether they were part of the cast – or the identity of those I saw.

What was the name of the service?
Solemn evensong and benediction.

How full was the building?
Probably around 15 worshippers, which made the church quite empty.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
The lady who handed me the service sheets said, "Good evening".

Was your pew comfortable?
The same wooden chairs that my usual church had until recently, so familiarity probably precludes an objective judgment. I was impressed with the agility of the congregation in kneeling in a relatively confined space without any scraping of chairs along the floor.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Absolute silence.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
Ahem. The service opened with a priest singing the first line of a response. As to what the line was... your Mystery Worshipper had planned to copy the exact text from the service sheet, but was spotted by a sidesperson leaving the church with the service sheet and had it politely but firmly removed.

What books did the congregation use during the service?
Two printed orders of service, one extra A4 sheet with music, and the New English Hymnal. Plus we may have been supposed to use one of the additional booklets provided at each seat, as there was one responsorial prayer which I couldn't find in either order of service (I had to sit that one out). The Book of Common Prayer was also at each seat, but no Bible was provided.

What musical instruments were played?
An organ.

Did anything distract you?
The concentration required to follow the service did distract me from worshipping; some instructions were given in the orders of service, but by no means all. My mind also wandered several times, trying to work out whether I had ever seen the type of musical notation used for the plainsong before; the clefs in particular. A Google search informs me that they were C and F clefs and that the square note neum notation is specific to plainsong, which would explain why it was unfamiliar. I did try to sing one hymn written in square notation as if it were in normal score and ran out of notes half way through; it's fair to say that curiosity and confusion overcame devotional thoughts at that point.

St Mary the Virgin, Bourne Street, Chelsea, London

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
You couldn't get much further up the candle. We had incense, plainsong, plenty of mentions of Mary and hymns in Latin.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
There was no sermon.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The sense of solemn dignity. One of the cantors had a beautifully resonant voice.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
My constant low-level concern that I was doing the wrong thing at the wrong time. This concern may have been well-founded, as at the end of the service I closed my eyes in a short prayer and when I opened them again I was on my own in the main section of the church. Several congregation members had moved to a side aisle and were genuflecting in front of some kind of ceremony which was happening at an altar; the rest had moved to the back of the church.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
One of the priests came over to speak to me and was very friendly for about a minute until someone else interrupted rather assertively and called him away.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none that I could see, and the rest of the congregation seemed to be leaving the building. There was a mass starting in 15 minutes, so it's quite likely that any refreshments would be after this service. The notice sheet also refers to drinks after the 11am high mass.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
4 – I'm reluctant to give a number, as my rating is low due to theological differences, rather than any objective grounds. It doesn't seem fair to penalise an Anglo-catholic church for not having a more liberal theology. Although this isn't the sort of worship I'm used to, that wouldn't necessarily prevent me from worshipping regularly at this church. However, there were a number of theological points I disagreed with which arose during the service (Joseph being referred to as "ever chaste" during the prayers, and references to the immaculate conception, to take two examples) so, on this basis, I would not make this my regular church.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, it was good to see worship being taken so seriously.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
How to read square note neum notation.
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