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479: Tyburn Convent, London
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Tyburn Convent, London, UK
Mystery Worshipper: Aileen.
The church: Tyburn Convent, London.
Denomination: Roman Catholic.
The building: A group of three large town houses on the Bayswater Road, opposite Hyde Park. One of them was bombed during World War Two. Inside, the chapel was high and domed, painted cream, with a high metal railing screen dividing us (the lay visitors) from the sisters and the priests and religious within the enclosure. A modern pipe organ. There was a modern stone altar, a high square cover above the pulpit, with a triangle containing three circles on its underside. Many white lilies and tall candles. High up, there were round windows and coloured shields of the martyrs. Altogether elegant and fairly minimalist.
The church: They are Benedictine nuns, who live enclosed in the convent, praying constantly (24/7) as their vocation. They are a mixture of young and old, and recently appeared in a television programme, "Modern Habits", on Metroland.
The neighbourhood: Just outside is the very busy Bayswater Road. Very close is the site of the Tyburn Tree where public executions used to take place. This is the raison d'etre of the convent.
The cast: "The Presiding Minister". Four visitors read the bidding prayers.
What was the name of the service?
Vespers for Christian Unity.

How full was the building?
The part of the building that is for visitors was as full as could be, and the other section, for the religious, had plenty of space.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
One of the sisters was at the door of the chapel, greeted us and asked where we were from. She was lying in wait for representatives from various churches who had been invited, and persuaded one of us to read a bidding prayer during the service. Then we were given an order of service and ushered in.

Was your pew comfortable?
Solid, modern, light wood pews. Some had kneelers of leather-covered wood. They were OK.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Fairly quiet, but not really reverential – many people were admiring the architecture, speculating quietly as to whether it was modern, looking out for friends and shuffling down the pews to make space for them. They were a bit like polite tourists. Others were coming in, dipping their fingers in the holy water, genuflecting and crossing themselves. There were very few children, and they behaved immaculately.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"O Blessed Trinity! We give you glory, praise and thanks, now and forever."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
Printed order of service leaflets.

What musical instruments were played?
None at all – everything was sung purely monastically – a capella. The community sisters sung all the antiphons.

Did anything distract you?
My service sheet was stapled in the wrong order, which confused me at first as I couldn't work out what was happening. When I twigged what was wrong, I tried to undo the staples and put it in order without rustling too much or breaking my finger nails... and my neighbour was whispering advice.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Totally monastic, responsorial psalms, one hymn and the Magnificat. Very cool style. Ethereal sisters' voices and then the rest of us following on... solemn, really, almost other-worldly.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
14 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
4 – He was dignified, white-haired and Irish. He wore a white robe and a gold coloured cope, with bright embroidered strips. He used a mixture of simplicity and concepts and vocabulary that I couldn't always follow.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Christian unity: We are already brought together by our baptism. We should pray for unity, which is the coming of God's kingdom on earth, and as we pray, we commit ourselves to bring this about. As we use Jesus' prayer, we get intimate with his Father, and the more we seek to become true Christians, the more we will become like Jesus. Our urgent task is to sit at his feet. Jesus is the source of Christian unity. We must pray all year, not only this week, "in a spirit of evangelical realism".

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Being invited to what must be a really committed home of one denomination, being welcomed, praying together for Christian unity, in a place that mourns for our past horrible actions of division.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Being stuck outside the railings that separated us from the nuns – another time I remember we were invited to sit inside. Remembering how Christians have tortured and murdered each other.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I lingered upstairs and no one approached me; but we had been told to go downstairs for refreshments. As soon as I was down, I was approached by a smiling young sister who offered me a drink and asked where I came from. There was plenty of chatting and talking to all of us visitors, and between the visitors.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Huge urns, choice of tea, coffee, lemon barley, in plastic cups with holders. Biscuits, jam tarts, cakes. The sisters were bringing them round and encouraging us to indulge, chatting away.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
2 – I would not be able to be a full part of the community!

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, because we were all there praying together. No, because I was remembering the martyrs of Tyburn and Smithfield, killed by "fellow-Christians".

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The gorgeous solemn little boy I glimpsed in among the religious side of the railings. He was dressed in cassock and alb, and had duties to do with the thurible. And what a noise the chains make when they get ratched up and down! Drowns out the singing!
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