St. Mary’s Bourne Street, London

If I hadn’t visited before, I wouldn’t have noticed the Anglo-Catholic church tucked back from the road and hidden between townhouses. A small sign in simple script hung above the sidewalk, reading “Church of St. Mary.” Turning into the wide pathway, we entered through a brick cupola.

Madeleine and Jack visited St. Mary’s in my novel, Inheritance, and the description reflects closely my experience on Sunday. The chapter was based on visits in the nineties, when Father Bill Scott was Vicar, but little has changed since then:

Madeleine took Jack’s hand as the taxi arrived at 30 Bourne Street, set in a quiet Knightsbridge neighborhood off Sloane Square. The red brick church, built in 1874 as a mission for the poor, stood between neat townhouses, about fifty feet back from the street. To the right of the arched entry, an ivy-covered gate led to a rectory and garden.

They entered through a vaulted cupola and found themselves in the north aisle near a Lady Chapel radiant with flaming candles. The church was not large, with a single nave and two side aisles running under graceful vaults, but it had the quaint air that time lends to beloved spaces, as generations polish and perfect their worship of God. It was a church layered, Madeleine thought, with the lives of men and women, textured with their joys and their sorrows.

They located seats in the back of the packed nave and knelt. Madeleine prayed her customary thanksgivings for the clergy, the people, and the freedom to worship. As the organ sounded the opening chords and the clergy assembled at the foot of the central aisle, she and Jack stood with the congregation, opened their hymnals, and sang,

“Love divine, all loves excelling, Joy of heav’n, to earth come down,
Fix in us thy humble dwelling, All thy faithful mercies crown.
Jesus, thou art all compassion, Pure, unbounded love thou art;
Visit us with thy salvation, Enter ev’ry trembling heart….”

The procession moved toward the altar. A thurifer swung his thurible of burning incense, a crucifer raised his gilded crucifix into the billowing smoke, and two young torchbearers stepped forward, holding their candles steady. Deacons and priests, the celebrant vested in purple, followed.

Through the liturgy, the rhythm of the past led the dance of the present. A deacon read the Ten Commandments, God’s rules of right and wrong. A choir sang Kyrie Eleison, Lord have mercy, the ancient chant that admitted man’s helplessness, his failure to meet those standards on his own. It was the beginning of repentance, a preparation for absolution, forgiveness of these failures, these sins.

The deacons read from Holy Scripture, the people recited the Creed, and the preacher spoke from a carved mahogany pulpit rising over the congregation like a ship’s prow. The celebrant, facing the high altar with his back to the people, chanted the ancient Canon of the Mass. As he said the words of Christ that changed the bread into body and the wine into blood, he offered his people, cleansed and redeemed, to God the Father through God the Son.    (Inheritance, Oaktara 2009)

On Sunday, after the candles were snuffed out, and the choir sang its last notes, we joined the crowd in the house next door for drinks. We climbed narrow winding stairs to a second floor landing which opened onto a dining room and living room looking upon the street.  As we waited for the Vicar to arrive, I studied the walls of books and framed photos of former vicars, including the Father Scott upon whom I based a minor character. The room was warm and welcoming, with comfortable seating around a hearth, and I wondered if it was here in this room that they held their evening “theology discussions” mentioned during the service.

I had brought three copies of my novel for the new Vicar, Father Cherry, as a thank you. But a most remarkable event occurred, reminding me of God’s immense and unpredictable grace, if one is simply patient.

Father Cherry was delighted that we had visited and introduced me to a lovely petite woman who, it turns out, knew Father Raymond Raynes, the Superior of the Community of the Resurrection in Mirfield.  Inheritance is greatly in debt to the words and themes of Father Raynes’ talks as he gathered folks together in private homes in the countryside of England and shared the vibrant Catholic faith in his own inimitable way. He was a tall man with classic facial features, good-looking I understand, but at the time of these gatherings he was growing ill and increasingly gaunt. He must have carried an air of angelic joy. Many consider him to be an Anglican saint.

So my new friend at St. Mary’s knew Father Raynes! She even had attended these gatherings, which she said they all called “Holy Parties.” She laughed with the memory and I laughed too. “I saw what he had and I wanted it, so I became an Anglo-Catholic.” She grinned.

So here she was!  She went on to say the parties involved a good deal of gin and confession. That made me laugh even more.

She was delighted to accept a copy of my novel, and I forced two copies on Father Cherry with many thanks for this inspiring church.  For St. Mary’s Bourne Street, set in the midst of Knightbridge, close to Belgravia, is truly a faithful and hopeful witness to historic Anglican Christianity in an unbelieving and cynical age.

Now I want to contact Father Scott, who, I understand is Chaplain to the Queen, a member of her Household. This might take a bit of doing. Or a lot more of God’s unpredictable grace. Would Father Scott (perhaps) like a copy of my novel?

Thanks be to God for surprising joys on this cold Sunday in London!
And thanks be to God for St. Mary’s Bourne Street.

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