NOT many masses feature a ' dancer flown in specially from Canada, a church festooned with pink and turquoise tinsel, and a bill picked up by the Arts Council. But then not many masses herald the start of Europe's biggest, brightest and glitziest street festival.
It could only have been carnival eucharist at St Mary of the Angels in London's Notting • Hill, an annual event now in its tenth year which draws a packed and star-studded congregation, including MPs, police chiefs and high commissioners. Outside a huge banner had been hoisted from two lamp posts with the message "St Mary of the Angels — Welcome to Carnival", and a 'team of small black girls wearing leggings and shocking pink T-shirts were feverishly practising their steps for the warm-up meditation dance. Inside, regular attenders jostled with one-off visitors for pews with views, and those who failed in the scrum for the front muttered grumpily about the pillar or large hat which had come between them and the altar.
Twenty minutes before the advertised start time of 6 pm anyone who was going to get any kind of seat had arrived, the porch was well on the way to capacity, and the atmosphere resembled that of a theatre in the moments before curtain up
on the second night of a show which has just received rave reviews.
Star act, alias chief concelebrant, was Bishop Patrick Kalilombe, the Malawian bishop who is director of the Centre for Black and White Christian Partnership in Birmingham, and the supporting cast of concelebrating clergy featured what must have amounted to every black face in the ranks of ordained Catholics in Britain. But the real man of the moment was director Fr Michael Hollings, parish priest of Si Mary and the architect of much of the community goodwill which has put the churches at the forefront of the battle to rebuild West London's keynote cultural event: as the minutes ticked away he wandered through the throng, pressing flesh and welcoming friends.
The long build-up ended with the arrival of the clerical procession, preceded by a bevy of small children plumed with brightly-coloured feathers, the "birds of paradise" which were the theme for this year's mass.
Bishop Kalilombe, resplendent in gold and red vestments, took it up in his sermon. "We are all," he said in his reach, deep tones, "birds of paradise. We are birds of paradise because this is the beginning of carnival." Did carnival, he asked, have any basis in scripture? "Of course it does. The psalms invite the people of God to shout and cry out, to play instruments, to dance and rejoice before the Lord."
The people who found the carnival, and who remained at its heart were, said the bishop, people who knew suffering. People who were subjected to other people's racism, people who were oppressed. But carnival was a vision of another world, a transformed world in which they would be delivered from their present darkness and fear. Carnival was a vision of God's kindness, a demonstration of hope, a sign of strength. Carnival, in so far as it was a manifestation of the risen Christ, was a sacrament. "It brings with it a new source of life. People go away feeling that something is happening," he said. Something was certainly happening at St Mary's, anyway. The offertory procession included Frank, a young black man dressed in a black and yellow robe who had just jetted in from Vancouver, and who was to transfix the congregation with his dramatic and beautiful dance performed to a song entitled Yellow Bird.
The emotional highlight of the celebration came, as it so often does at a special mass,
Photo credit: Carlos Reyes/APA
with the sung Our Father and subsequent rendition of Bind us Together, accompanied by much linking of hands, swinging of bodies and outpouring of goodwill. A lengthy distribution of communion followed. time filled by, amongst many other hymns, one in pidgin which contained such lines as: "Come pray bredda, where Sammy a nail zinc to cover we head. you're ther Saviour, I don't mean maybe."
It was all so enjoyable it barely seemed possible we kad been there full two and a half hours by the time Bishop Kalilombe got round to the concluding prayer. "Enjoy the carnival," said my pew-mates as we headed out into the street, the strains of the final hymn still dying away, to be greeted by the sound of a steel band and the charming sight of a still-robed Bishop Kalilombe leading the dancing.