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3124: St Alban's, Macclesfield, England
St Alban's. Macclesfield (Exterior)
Photo: Mike Porter and used under license
Mystery Worshipper: Secret Squirrel.
The church: St Alban's, Macclesfield, Cheshire, England.
Denomination: Roman Catholic, Diocese of Shrewsbury.
The building: The church is a Grade II listed building dating from 1841, with embellishments added during the early 20th century and again in the late 20th/early 21st centuries. Even so, the tower remains unfinished. The architect was the great champion of Neo-Gothic, Augustus Welby Pugin, and the building has all the grandeur and dignity of his style. The nave features high clerestory windows, slender piers, and a rood screen. The stained glass is quite attractive. Pugin's original wall decorations have been restored, and new lighting fixtures were recently installed of which Pugin would surely have approved.
The church: The community have opened their doors to live TV broadcasts. That's extraordinarily generous and must indicate a parish with an understanding of the community outside the church doors. They appear to be a very active parish with numerous ministries and groups, as well as affiliations with various organisations. Their website gives an idea of the many social and prayer activities that would appeal to different types of parishioners.
The neighbourhood: Macclesfield grew in the 19th century as it became the world's biggest producer of finished silk. There were 71 silk mills in the area in 1832. The town styles itself in its publicity as Silktown. The town is the original home of Hovis Ltd, bakers of bread known for its high wheat germ content, which provided a cheap meal for the mill workers.
The cast: The names of the priests weren't announced so I had to do some detective work. The website suggests they were the Revd Paschal Ihesiaba and the Revd Francis Nnadi. One wore a pinky purple chasuble and the other a bluish purple chasuble. Father Pinky-Purple was the principal celebrant.
The date & time: Ash Wednesday, 1st March 2017, 7.00pm.

What was the name of the service?
Ash Wednesday Mass.

How full was the building?
From my viewpoint (which was my computer at home – I was watching the live broadcast) I could only see the first five rows of pews. They were full. As people came to the front for the distribution of ashes and for holy communion, I realised that the church was large and there were a lot of people at the service.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
To be fair, they didn't know I was there. The camera had been set so I had a good central view, and because I was seeing the first few rows only I did have the feeling that I was in the midst of the crowd rather than just an onlooker. Although Father Pinky-Purple didn't acknowledge the possible TV visitors, he did look up to the camera. But he may just have been praying.

Was your pew comfortable?
I had a very comfortable seat in front of my computer. The rest of the congregation were sitting on traditional wooden pews supplemented by some modern chairs.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
I tuned in ten minutes early. As usual in a Catholic parish, most people showed up in the last five minutes. Unfortunately, any chance of a quiet moment of reflection was spoilt by two ladies arriving and then setting up and practising the hymns on their guitars. As this was at the front of the church and the microphones were on, we saw and heard it all. They continued rehearsing snippets until the entrance bell was rung.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Good evening."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
I couldn't see the details of the hymn books. People had the responses so they must have been using missals.

What musical instruments were played?
There were the two guitars and I think a couple of extra singers were lurking behind a pillar.

Did anything distract you?
There was a large blue banner hung over the rood screen and a logo put on the lectern. Both were the promotional materials of Cafod, the Catholic overseas development agency. It is laudable that the parish supports this charity, but it seemed a shame that the eucharistic sacrifice of the mass was overshadowed by this one message. I'm afraid the musicians were also a distraction. As they hadn't rehearsed, they were fidgeting and muttering to each other. Maybe it was particularly noticeable from my viewpoint.

St Alban's, Macclesfield< Cambridge (Interior)

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The mass itself was a normal parish mass as one would expect in the UK. There were two altar servers and two priests but it wasn't overly formal. The happy clappy hymns and guitar music seemed a bit incongruous for the first day of Lent, when the community was being encouraged to reflect on repentance.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
8 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – Father Pinky-Purple spoke well. He used some nice images from creation, and at a couple of points he did a little song, which livened up the content.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
As expected for Ash Wednesday, we need to use Lent to renew our relationship with God. Lent is a period of new life as the trees spring forth new leaves around us. The ashes remind us that we should be humble. Just as a butterfly should not think it is a bird, we should not think we are God. Lent is a time to follow the Lord's footsteps. Fasting is not about saving money for a holiday or losing weight. We are not alone in our efforts. Fasting, prayer, and almsgiving are opportunities to do some spring cleaning and "get ourselves fresh."

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The opportunity to take part in a parish mass, even if remotely. It wasn't a staged event for the cameras but a community worshipping together.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
I think I have said it all really. I started to dread the next stage whisper from the musicians. And the younger altar server's alb was too short. It looked like she had grown since being fitted for it. She needs a new alb to give her a dignity that the older server had in his properly fitting alb.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
The crowd dispersed quite slowly but I didn't stay watching.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
I went downstairs and made myself a delicious cup of tea in my favourite mug. No biscuits because it was Ash Wednesday.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 – I would have to choose a mass without music.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Very much so. And grateful that the parish have decided to share their Christian faith on the TV. The website says that they aim to be a loving Catholic community proclaiming God's word and serving all those in need. The TV broadcast does this nicely.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
I'll remember the sermon with the images of Lent being a season of springtime.
 
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