17. Smells and Bells

2018.08.06  On my first two Sundays here, I attended Hillsong Church Oxford, and, on both occasions, was richly blessed. The relaxed and welcoming atmosphere, lively and enthusiastic worship, and a life application message were needed and appreciated.

But last Sunday, I felt the need for a quieter and more contemplative experience.  And  a strong desire to celebrate my Roman Catholic and Anglican liturgical roots.  Of course, there is no shortage of liturgical churches in Oxford and I killed two birds with one stone  by choosing the Anglo-Catholic Church of St. Mary Magdalene – just around the corner from Exeter College.

St. MM Sign

Oxford-St-Mary-Magdalene church







I was told that worship on the site began in 1000 AD but that construction on the current “new” building did not begin until the 13th century. LOL  So last fall, my cousin Steve Johnson and I, wth Annie’s help, found  the headstone of our 14th great-grandfather, John Johnson, who left Kent County, England and arrived in Ipswich, Massachusetts in 1632 and died in 1683. We thought his headstone looked pretty old . But it looked positively new compared  to what I saw in the 13th century churchyard.

John Johnsons headstone

Old Gravestone 1







Pretty Old                       


                                                                                                                    Really Really Old


So about the service . . . of course it wasn’t a service at all, it was a Mass. And although it was in English instead of Latin, the altar was placed in such a way that the priest’s back was to the congregation. Like in the old days. And not a single word was uttered that was not part of the liturgy.

Now let me be clear. I am ALL for making liturgical worship as easy as possible to follow. For everyone in the congregation. Especially newcomers. Having said that, it was quite lovely to be fully immersed in the ancient rituals, beautifully and formally worded prayers, and perfectly intoned chants, complete with holy water and incense. With no interruptions for mundane matters like page numbers or instructions for communion. This is certainly not the only way, and maybe not even a very good way, to create an atmosphere of reverence, but on this particular morning it moved me in a way I find difficult to describe.

I was probably the only visitor that morning and was approached by several “regulars” at the conclusion of Mass.  Including ninety-year-old Father Thomas. This delightful gentleman insisted that we have a coffee together and shared some of the church’s history.  He also apologized for the absence of the choir (“they are all Oxford music students and tutors, but they are all on Holiday”) and the sub-par performance of the congregation.  Well I’m sorry I missed the A-Team, but the organist that morning was one of the best I’ve heard in a long while. And the congregation sang on key, with noticeable enthusiasm and plenty of volume. If that was a mediocre day . . .

I spent the rest of my Sunday working on the third, fourth and fifth drafts of my two capstone papers.  Our little campus was the quietest it’s been since we all arrived.  Because everybody else was working on their papers as well. I can hear Maggie Smith telling the summer creative spell-writing school students. “we grade to HOGWARTS standards!”







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