St Nicholas of Myra, Brighton, East Sussex, England


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Nicholas of Myra, Brighton
Location: East Sussex, England
Date of visit: Thursday, 9 May 2024, 5:00pm

The building

This 14th century church was mostly rebuilt in 1853, except for the tower. At the west end is a Norman font of 1186, a remarkable piece with a carved frieze of Romanesque characters. Does this come from a yet earlier church on this site, or somewhere else? The 19th century rebuilding was instigated by the energetic and wealthy Fr HM Wagner, who is celebrated for commissioning five entirely new churches across Brighton, and who was vicar at St Nicholas for 46 years. (The Wagners became a real power in Brighton, and the vicar’s son, Revd AD Wagner, went on to commission yet more new churches.) In the 1890s, there was another round of improvements at St Nicholas, in which a reredos and rood were added, giving the church a distinctly English liturgical atmosphere. At the same time the chancel screen of 1480 was restored, and embellished with figures that had long been missing. St Nicholas today is an intimate and welcoming church, quietly disclosing its layers of hisotry.

The church

This appears to be a lively parish community, with a Female Mystics Reading Group (I am guessing more Julian of Norwich than Mystic Meg), non-sectarian meditation sessions, concerts and services throughout the week. St Nicholas seems to be aiming to serve a broad section of its community.

The neighborhood

Perched on top of a steep hill and surrounded by a spacious churchyard, St Nicholas appears semi-rural in spite of being quite centrally located in the seaside resort of Brighton. The churchyard is well used as a pedestrian cut-through and is popular with dog walkers (I hope they pick it up and take it with them). There are seats dotted about and these are well-appreciated, especially by the elderly who struggle up the hill. Street drinkers also gather in the margins of the churchyard and leave piles of cans and bottles. It is surely the church’s role to afford them use of this green space, when they are moved on from so many other places. But they should in return respect its consecrated nature. The population of central Brighton is cosmopolitan and mixed on every demographic transect. Parts of the area around St Nicholas are chic and lived in by London commuters, while there is also poverty and a tenacious problem of youth homelessness.

The cast

A young priest (who I think was the curate) celebrated. Another young clergyman (I think he was the vicar) welcomed us at the door and preached. A member of the congregation read the lesson.

What was the name of the service?

Eucharist and Meditation for Ascension Day.

How full was the building?

There were 10 of us in a building that could seat more than 100.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

We were welcomed by the clergyman who offered us the service sheet and invited us to sit where we liked.

Was your pew comfortable?

It was a chair and passed muster, though I am always happier with the firm solidity of an old-school pew.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Still and contemplative.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

‘In the name of the Father...’

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Just the service sheet.

What musical instruments were played?


Did anything distract you?

One or two people came from and went to what I took to be a parish office at the north east corner of the church.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

A simple said eucharist with modern language and no hymns. At the close of the eucharist, the reserved sacrament was brought with due reverence from the aumbry and placed on the altar in a monstrance. There was no benediction, or indeed explanation, but everyone in the church seemed to understand the meaning of this and stayed for a period of silent meditation before the host.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

5 minutes – the optimal length, to my way of thinking.

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

7 — Unvested, standing in front of the altar, he spoke without notes. But though the presentation was semi-informal, what he said was clear, pertinent and beautifully constructed.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The ascension—for this was the feast of the ascension. He evoked the traditional imagery of the ascension in paintings and murals, and said they were about upward movement, and heaven being ‘somewhere up there’. At St Nicholas, within living memory, the choir sang from the top of the church tower on Ascension Day as an expression of this cosmology. But these traditions were a way of illustrating a theological truth, not a literal one, and we need to perceive God as being closer to us in our daily lives than we are to ourselves.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

We were few in number, but naturally clustered around the nave altar, and the homely architecture made for a service of quiet intimacy – just right for late afternoon on a sunny spring day.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

Nothing here remotely hellish, though the walk up the steep hill to St Nicholas was a little challenging.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

After a period of meditation, we quietly left and sat in the churchyard.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

The silent meditation before the host was much more nourishing than a cup of coffee. Besides, every second shop in Brighton seems to have been converted into a hipster coffee shop. The town is awash with caffeine.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

7 — If I lived in Brighton, I can well imagine making this my home church. As it is, I shall try and make it one Sunday on a weekend visit.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?


What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

The contemplative, measured atmosphere of the eucharist and meditation, which feel like a special gift in the centre of a seaside town better known for vibrancy and good times.

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