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35: St Agatha's Church, Portsmouth, England
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St Agatha's Church
Mystery Worshipper: The Ferret.
The church: St Agatha's Church, Portsmouth.
Denomination: Traditional Anglican Communion – one of the 'Continuing Anglican' communions that have broken away from the Anglican Church due to disagreements over perceived laxity in areas of core belief.
The building: St. Agatha's was built just over 100 years ago in the now-vanished slum of Landport. It was of the highest importance as one of the successful 'slum parishes' of the 19th century Anglo-Catholic revival. Its fame largely revolved around the successes of its incumbent, Father Dolling. This one-man dynamo blended high Catholic ritual and old-fashioned tub-thumping evangelism into a high-octane brew that had them queuing round the block to get in. His pastoral efforts included building almshouses, a school, a gymnasium and soup kitchens. Sadly, he worked himself into an early grave. In 1940, a massive bombing raid flattened Landport, but miraculously the church survived, though damaged. Devoid of its congregation, the church soldiered on till 1954, when the Church of England closed it down and it was acquired by the military as a store. It has since been scheduled for demolition twice (once to make way for a nine-lane highway), but survived the planners and has recently been restored. The Traditional Anglican Communion acquired the rights to use the church two years ago. Architecturally, the interior is startling and gorgeously decorated, most notably in the arts-and-crafts style sgraffito-decorated apse. It has now been listed as a building of historical national importance. Further details and pictures are on the church's website.
The neighbourhood: What neighbourhood? It was entirely destroyed by bombing in World War II. The church's only neighbours are now Portsmouth dockyard, the Cascades shopping mall, and the abandoned Tricorn shopping centre, due for demolition.
The cast: Officiating priest: Fr John Maunder. Preacher: Rev. Messham, a retired former Congregationalist minister, we were told.
What was the name of the service?
Solemn Mass (Sunday before Epiphany).

How full was the building?
There were 27 in the congregation, 10 in the altar party, plus organist. This is a large building and could hold far more.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
Several times, by both congregation and clergy. They came up and talked, having recognised us as visitors, as we entered the church and looked around before the service.

Was your pew comfortable?
Individual chairs – they were more than adequately comfortable.

St Agatha's Church

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quiet and contemplative.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
'Good morning and a very happy new year to you all...' This was said by the churchwarden, immediately before the entry of the procession.

What books did the congregation use during the service?
The order of service for the Mass, the English Hymnal, and a card with the words of the Angelus.

What musical instruments were played?

Did anything distract you?
Not really... although I did accidentally leave my hymn book on the seat in front, and had to retrieve it – apologetically – from beneath another worshipper!

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
This was a full solemn Mass in the Anglo-Catholic tradition, with as much ritual as you are likely to find this side of the Council of Trent. We started with a procession for prayers at the crib, then the service proper started with the asperges, and progressed through the detailed preparatory ritual. The core ritual of the Mass was strictly Book of Common Prayer. We finished with the Angelus, again at the crib.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
10 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The feast of the Epiphany and the significance for us that among the first to adore the Christ-child were Gentiles. It started well enough, but the three wise men started as kings, became magi, and then reverted to being the kings of India, Arabia and Ethiopia (I think). I'm aware of this tradition, but it rather stood out in an otherwise entirely orthodox experience. A couple of regulars (unprompted) suggested afterwards that we should come back to hear Fr Maunder preach – fair enough.

St Agatha's Church

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
I was gradually overcome by what I can only describe as a curious sense of timeless mystery as the service progressed. Despite the ritual intensiveness, its purpose was never less than clear, assured and reverent.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Not really anything, but the sermon was somewhat disappointing.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
We didn't have time to look lost – we were immediately collared by a couple of members of the congregation, and invited to join everyone for coffee. Several fascinating conversations ensued, including the history of this famous old church, how a small congregation of about 10 acquired the rights to it two years ago, and their subsequent growth.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Coffee (in cups) with biscuits – fine, I think. I can't really remember, as I was too busy talking.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 if I was thinking of moving. But I have no personal answers to the troubling question of when and whether a disagreement – however major – becomes worth a schism. The clear sincerity and determination impressed.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Undoubtedly. I had been a little apprehensive before visiting, never having been to a 'Continuing Anglican' church before. I had wondered if I might be venturing into a nest of ayatollahs. I couldn't have been more wrong. The warmth of the welcome and the attitude of sadness rather than bitterness over the split were evident.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The fact that this fine old building has re-emerged into the light of day to support a new congregation in a similar tradition to that of its founders.

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