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Farewell to ‘church shopping’

Do you go “shopping” for a church where you find the style of worship suits you, or because you find the priest congenial and the congregation friendly (but not too friendly)? The practice is frowned upon in some Catholic circles, though it’s normal in the Anglican Church with its greater range of worship styles. Many Catholics hold that you should support your local parish church, and that the Mass is the same wherever you go anyway.

In practice there is much variation. The priest’s attitude to the Mass and its meaning, his view of what worshippers might like – these factors make a difference. Readers will have experienced liturgy that is lacklustre; egomaniac priests who drone on, turning their homilies into Marxist tracts, or act like game-show hosts and insert irritating ad-libs into the sacred wording. And then there’s the music …

For all these reasons I became a church-shopper. First I favoured St Mary’s, Cadogan Street, in central London, because the priest at that time, the biblical scholar Fr Robert Letellier, was a superb teacher, and even his brief weekday homilies would leave you with something to ponder or explore further.

Then I went to St Etheldreda’s in Ely Place, Holborn, where there was a Sunday Sung Mass. The choir was excellent (still is, I’m sure), and the Mass so popular that some regulars travelled in from outside London.

I got married at Ely Place, in a traditional-style but idiosyncratic ceremony. It contained parts of the Sarum Missal, with phrases that evoke the Book of Common Prayer. I’m sure I remember “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here …”

We started a family and moved to the London Oratory, in Knightsbridge, which was still a Tube or car ride away. But we have been faithful attenders there for about 14 years. We like the “low” Masses. Like everything at the Oratory, these simpler liturgies are carried out with total seriousness and feel grounded in reality. Even at the more elaborate ceremonies the participants are focused on the meaning of what they’re doing, not on the theatre of it. And because they are well practised, everything flows and you are not distracted by clumsiness.

The depressing thing is that Catholics in many parts of the country outside London do not have a choice. If they’re unlucky they might be saddled with a liturgy that bores them into a state of disillusionment.

But anecdotal evidence suggests that the situation has been improving since Benedict XVI’s renewed focus on beauty and the liturgy. He made it clear that aesthetics cannot be dismissed as something trivial or irrelevant. In his reflection on the Eucharist, Sacramentum Caritatis, he points to an equivalence between beauty and love: “As St Bonaventure would say, in Jesus we contemplate beauty and splendour at their source. This is no mere aestheticism, but the concrete way in which the truth of God’s love in Christ encounters us, attracts us and delights us, enabling us to emerge from ourselves and drawing us towards our true vocation, which is love.” The liturgy should aim for the sublime, “a glimpse of heaven on earth”.

This doesn’t have to mean bells and smells and the splendour of a High Mass. The beauty of the liturgy can be in the care that’s taken. Which brings me to a current Mass spot, which is at the Royal Hospital for Neuro-disability in Putney, a short stroll from my home. Florence Nightingale and Charles Dickens were involved with it in the 19th century. Today it treats patients with often catastrophic brain injuries caused by anything from a stroke to a motorcycle accident.

The priest of my parish church, St Thomas à Becket, Wandsworth, says Mass at the hospital. Parishioners help out, laying out chairs and Mass books, bringing patients down from the wards in their special wheelchairs. Thoughtful deployment of altar cloth, candles and a crucifix, combined with Fr Alex McAllister’s brilliantly pithy homilies, rooted in Scripture, mean that the liturgy in this setting fulfils Pope Benedict’s prescription: that beauty is not mere decoration, but “an essential element of the liturgical action”, since it comes from God. I felt humbled, on a recent Sunday near the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, to be anointed with the sacrament of the sick along with patients, their relations and a few locals.

I have come full circle. I still keep in touch with my friends at the Oratory but I am also getting to know my local parish and parish priest. Perhaps “church shopping” will once again become something only Anglicans do.

Andrew M Brown is obituaries editor of The Daily Telegraph