Yesterday, I took the opportunity, following the kind invitation of James Bradley, to attend mass at the parish of the Holy Ghost in Balham, where James is parish Deacon. James is a Deacon in the Ordinariate, and a friend of the Marylebone Ordinariate Group (having kindly deaconed our Reception Mass on September 3rd). He is also a Deacon of some very spectacular international renown, having sung the Gospel in front of the Holy Father, countless Cardinals, Archishops, Bishops and Priests, and of a congregation far in excess of one million at the recent World Youth Day celebrations in Madrid.
Arriving in Nightingale Square, SW12, I was greeted by a sight that is now very familiar. Catholic parishes usually have a series of masses each Sunday morning, often meaning that as the congregation from one mass files out, the congregation for the next mass is beginning to arrive. This is something I had witnessed as an Anglican only during my days living in Hong Kong, where the Anglican Cathedral had the similar dual properties of a busy timetable and high attendance levels. It was not something that I had previously encountered in the Church of England.
Since the often-maligned Victoria and Northern Lines had sped me down from Pimlico to Balham in unbelievably quick time (barely longer than it would have taken me to get to St James's), I was able to take the opportunity to wander around the square a little before mass, and to take the photo below, before finally approaching the church. If you look very carefully in this photo by zooming and with your magnifying glass, you will see James in his purple dalmatic, right at the back, talking with a parishioner.
James greeted me at the door, helped me find the right selection of books and cards, and pointed me into the church itself. Still not having the necessary brazen nature for papparazo duties, I managed only one photo of the interior of the church, the grainy result of which can be seen below. Other photos are of course available by perusing the parish's own website.
I will confess that I had done a little preparation before my visit. Years of Anglo-Catholic training had taught me to be very careful when stepping away from familar territory, you never know what you might find when away from home. Yet, this caution was, as in the case of my visit to Holy Apostles Pimlico, shown to be utterly unnecessary. In any event, the information I had read beforehand was extremely positive. I had come across an article by Joanna Bogle entitled London's Balham parish, 'an icon of liturgical hope', which made me very much look forward to the Mass, despite my usual pathetic and despicable Central Londoner's attitude of wariness about crossing the river or going outside the Circle Line.
The Joanna Bogle article proved to describe a scene virtually identical to the one I found, as this extract explains :
Parish music director is Jeremy de Satge...... At Balham, there is a parish choir that sings Latin plainchant, and lovely settings of the Introit verse in Latin and English. The congregation has been taught some Mass settings and now large numbers of them join in, too.I noticed that the church was busy, with a preponderance at the front of families with children, and elsewhere a remarkably healthy mix of men and women of all ages. Mass started with the sound of a bell, the choir beginning the plainchant introit in Latin, and a long procession entering from the sacristy. The altar was censed (I noted the use of the so-called "Benedictine arrangement", with a cross standing in the middle of the altar), and we set to work using the new translation, which seemed already to have settled in very nicely with the congregation.
The choir meets weekly to practise. It is made up of volunteers, many of whom do not read music. They are amateurs in the best sense of the word - people who love what they are doing.
Add to this a dignified sanctuary, a glittering new tabernacle in gold, marble floors that shine, a generous array of candles in tall silver candlesticks, and priests who celebrate the liturgy with love - and you have something that builds up the parish numbers, and attracts people from farther afield too.....
.....Is all this difficult? It seems not - although goodwill and energy are required. Jeremy de Satge is a convert- he joined the Church aged 18, back in the late 1970s, after a childhood spent singing in Anglican church and cathedral choirs. As a Catholic, he came to know and love the music and liturgy at London's Brompton Oratory and this was partly what inspired him to see what he could achieve at parish level.
Of course, commitment and encouragement from the parish priest are essential. Father Stephen Langridge, parish priest at Balham, makes no secret of wanting the best for God - a church that is a true place of prayer, a devout and enthusiastic congregation, a parish where the children are well instructed and the Faith is taught and honoured. Is it just a coincidence that confession is widely promoted? Confessions are heard regularly, including on Sundays, and the subject is mentioned frequently from the pulpit.
After some more chant from the choir and some very well executed readings by a member of the congregation, I had the chance once again to hear Deacon Bradley singing the Gospel. Then, we had the reason for his invitation, a homily that touched on the Ordinariate, what its place was, what its purpose was, and what its genesis had been. This is part of the mission of the Ordinariate as mentioned in our blogpost yesterday, to introduce ourselves and to explain the purpose of the Ordinariate to the wider Catholic community.
James's excellent homily may well be appearing elsewhere on the internet soon, and if it does, we will provide a link to it here. Suffice it for now to say that I could very easily identify personally with much of what he said: life in Oxford and Sevenoaks, studying music at university, leaving behind Anglican years of a sound music tradition and catholic practice, and finally coming into the full communion of the Catholic Church this year. The call to unity, as Our Lord had willed on the night that he was betrayed, was the driving force both behind the Holy Father's invitation in Anglicanorum coetibus, and behind the impetus that causes Anglicans to leave behind what they have known and loved and to accept that invitation. The call to unity is a clear and explicit Gospel imperative. The Catholic Church was not receiving us as naughty, errant schoolchildren, but as Christians who sought to follow that Gospel imperative. Refusing Anglicanorum coetibus was not only resisting the call to unity, but actively blocking it.
The homily talked of that great hymn, O Thou who at Thy Eucharist didst pray (which we sang later as a communion hymn) as a prayer very much connected with concepts behind the Ordinariate, especially the verse :
We pray Thee too for wanderers from thy fold;James explained that the Ordinariate had around 1000 lay members and around 60 clergy (with more in both categories planning to join in 2012), but as yet no churches and little money. Members of the congregation were invited to discuss the Catholic Church and the Ordinariate with their Anglican friends, so that the human face of the Church can shine through. As to financial support, another friend of the Marylebone Ordinariate Group, Peter Sefton-Williams, from the Friends of the Ordinariate, was present, and with James handed out leaflets about the work of the Ordinariate and the Friends of the Ordinariate after Mass. We understand some donations were received, and a number of people have approached James about exploring the possibility of joining the Ordinariate.
O bring them back, good Shepherd of the sheep,
back to the faith which saints believed of old,
back to the Church which still that faith doth keep;
soon may we all one Bread, one Body be,
through this blest Sacrament of unity.
After the homily and some sung intercessions, I was delighted to hear the Roman Canon, Eucharistic Prayer I, in use. Although always dignified (not least the sonorous gong at the consecration), we moved quickly and efficiently through, and before long it was time to receive the sacrament, which a very sizeable proportion of people did on their knees, despite the lack of an altar rail. A chance to sing Rorate Coeli in Latin followed (I had only sung it in English before, and so, despite having heard it in Latin previously, I was beaten to this achievement by a friend from Hong Kong.)
We had various parish notices, including a reminder for parents to get references for applications to the Holy Ghost parish school, and a young chap called Peter then addressed the congregation in a very impressive and confident (and concise) fashion on youth group activities: it was all done efficiently though, and before long Deacon Bradley was inviting us to bow our heads for the blessing.
People might think they could accuse someone whose experience of the Catholic Church is mostly based around St James's Spanish Place, with some knowledge of the London Oratory, the Oxford Oratory and Westminster Cathedral of not having had the widest possible experience of the Catholic Church. Perhaps so, but there is a clear answer to that superficial criticism: whenever I have found myself away from what critics might term my "comfort zone", I have always been very happy with what I have found, be that in France, Scotland, Kent, Pimlico or indeed Balham.
The point is that, whatever the music, whatever the vintage of the vestments, whatever the particular Eucharistic Prayer employed, whatever the location, whether in Latin or the new English translation, the Catholic Church is the Catholic Church, and the Mass is the Mass, and all is in communion with the Holy Father. That is one of the great joys of having becoming a Catholic, and does not depend in any way whatsoever on the Central London privilege of having access to some of the most well known Catholic places of worship in this country
Let us give thanks to God for the work of the parish of the Holy Ghost in Balham, and for the Ordinariate. May their impressive achievements and ongoing efforts continue to bring great benefits to the people of that part of London.