Mystery Worshipper: Ena
Church: All Saints
Location: Marlow, Buckinghamshire, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 16 July 2006, 9:30am
There are records of a church on this site as early as 1070. The present building of knapped flint and brick is large and imposing. The stained glass is colourful and gives a powerful overall impression, although from close up the detail is slightly overpowering. The roof is high and the side windows let in a lot of light so it feel airy and spacious.
There are several services each Sunday and during the week, and children are actively encouraged. The family service, called Encounter, is described on their website as being a relaxed alternative service "for those unsure of their beliefs or starting out on a journey of faith." The church is part of a group of four churches in the area, but I found no explanation of how they all work together. The church magazine, The Bridge, is most informative and entertaining, and available on their website.
Marlow is a small town on the river Thames with a beautiful bridge, high street and park. All Saints is located in a middle to upper class area. The churchyard goes right down to the river, and throughout its history the church has had problems with dampness and flooding.
The Rev. Nicholas Molony, vicar, took the service, and the Rev. Gabrielle Smith conducted the choir at one point.
What was the name of the service?Parish Eucharist
How full was the building?
It was just over a third full, which was quite impressive as Marlow is a small town and the church has many services. About 70 percent of the congregation were over 65 (there were a few young couples because of marriage banns being read out), but in all fairness this was not the service aimed at young people.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
One of the priests (he didn't introduce himself at the time, but we found out later it was Father Molony) was standing outside and said hello as we approached. Upon entering, we received a very sober "Welcome!" from the person giving out the service sheets. As we sat down, the people in the pew in front (visitors from South Africa) greeted us enthusiastically, followed by the priest we had seen outside, who asked us our names and later called us by name at communion, which was impressive.
Was your pew comfortable?
Well, it was a pew hard and so well polished I though I might slip off. The kneelers looked very thin and there was not much space to kneel, so I didn't attempt it and neither did most people. The lady in front of me did kneel and had quite some difficulty getting back up!
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
A bit gossipy. A few people were praying but the general chitchat and moving around made them seem a bit out of place. Despite this I did not feel awkward when I prayed. There were children's toys at the back of the church so the younger members of the congregation were quiet.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning, everyone, and welcome." The vicar then detailed how to use the numerous sheets.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
There was a hymnbook, Hymns Ancient and Modern Revised, in the pews but it wasn't used. We were handed three sheets as we entered, two of which were folded, and they required quite some navigating. The vicar's explanations at the beginning were very necessary!
What musical instruments were played?
Organ with choir.
Did anything distract you?
At the beginning there was a loud crackle from the speakers and we heard what sounded like the vicar quietly singing to himself. He was clearly quite unaware the mike had been switched on. (I suppose, technically, those were the first words of the service.) The different sheets were confusing, as we swapped between all three at a fast pace. I had difficulty hearing the prayers, as they were read very quietly in a hushed tone. Atmospheric, but as they weren't included on any of the three sheets (they were about the only things that weren't) I had no idea what I was praying for. And I was sitting near the front!
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The congregation were definitely stiff-upper-lip, but I got the impression the vicar was trying gently to pull them toward a more casual style. The hymns were a mixture of traditional ("Dear Lord and Father of mankind") and rather more modern ("Let there be love shared among us") and the worship was fairly relaxed, considering it was one of the more formal services this church holds. But we rushed through the creed so fast I could hardly register what I was saying. The poor little girl in the visiting South African family looked up and gazed about her as if to wonder what was going on.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
Eight and a half minutes.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
5 – I found the sermon decidedly insubstantial and had difficulty following. The vicar brought up quite a few different points, which were only faintly related as far as I could make out, and just as I was expecting him to tie them all together he said, "I think I'll leave it there!" However, he was enthusiastic and his regular congregation may be able to understand his style better, as they listen to him frequently.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The vicar began with a plea for volunteers for church posts, and methods of selecting people in general. From this he segued into Ephesians 1:3-4, saying that we should not take God's blessings for granted but should find our own exciting, personal passion for Christ.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
I found the beauty of the building to be uplifting, as were the prayers (at least those I could hear). The South African family were invited to help distribute communion, and the man recited a lovely and reverent African blessing as he ministered the chalice.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The singing. The choir sat in those awkward choir stalls that face inward and most of them were turned toward the altar. It was impossible to hear them, and they provided no support for the congregational singing. Their voices seemed to waiver now and then and even appeared to stop a few times on the higher passages. I didn't feel I could sing out at all.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
As soon as it was over, we were all shepherded along to a building a short walk away, where refreshments had been set out. No sooner had we sat down when we noticed a number of older women homing in on us from all directions. They were very friendly and welcoming, but a little overbearing with their questions: Where were we from? Had we just moved to the area? Why hadn't we visited before? They certainly prevented us from feeling lost!
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
The (very hot) coffee was fair trade and was served in those green china cups that church halls seem to specialise in. And there were biscuits. If there was tea, we didn't see it. My sister sampled some squash and pronounced it revolting.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 – We felt a good sense of community but were disappointed in the age range, though it might be better at other services.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. The building was lovely and the community seemed friendly and strong. However, I agree with the vicar about getting a little more passion into the worship, especially the singing. I feel somewhat ashamed to think the Church of England can be awfully lacklustre at times.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The little South African girl staring up at everyone during the creed, and the friendly, enthusiastic effort of the ladies to include us as we clutched our coffee cups.