Georgian centrepiece of a Georgian town rebuilt after the fire of 1731. The church is elegant outside and in, but in poor condition owing to a leaking roof. Very fine plasterwork needs major restoration. The chancel was extended in the 19th century and is now obscured by a large screen.
Calling itself The Church in the Market Place (which it is), it would like to be the centre of town life. They have several Connect Groups that meet in parishioners’ homes to socialise, pray, and discuss the Bible. They also have a crafts club and a toddlers’ group. There is a said Holy Communion each Sunday, plus either a second Holy Communion service or Morning Prayer in alternating weeks. This week, the church is hosting a Christmas tree festival.
Dorset, a county in southwest England, is much less developed than the southeast. Blandford still feels like a market town, retaining something of its Georgian character, although the coaching inns (but not their buildings) are replaced by smaller shops. There is some new housing and car parks outside the centre, but no one seems to feel that the centre of the town is for tourists or that there is anything special about the architecture. (Oh, but there is!) The tiny museum in a back alley does not focus on the 18th century. I saw no homelessness.
The service was led by a priest (in shirt-sleeves and a dog-collar), supported by musicians and a parishioner who led the prayers.
What was the name of the service?Holy Communion.
How full was the building?
About 40 in the pews. Plus children and carers, electronic experts, musicians.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes. At the door and during 'the peace.' All very friendly.
Was your pew comfortable?
Yes. A box pew.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The sound of bells filled the market place as I drove in. The church was full of talk and people greeting one another.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
‘Good morning, everybody.’
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Printed service sheet. Hymn words on screen.
What musical instruments were played?
Piano and guitar. I assumed the splendid organ had been silenced by the trouble with the roof, but it leapt into life for the final hymn: 'O come, O come, Emmanuel.'
Did anything distract you?
The children, particularly one, who escaped his carers more than once and ran down the central aisle, to be fielded and brought back. But he did it again. Everyone enjoyed this, including him.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
All the action happened round a nave altar, where the priest preached, walking about. Extremely informal, as though they felt that bringing the action down to earth would somehow make it comprehensible. Good try, but to me, it made it even more obscure. Absence of ritual has become a ritual. Children played noisily in the north aisle.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 — Joke at the beginning fell flat, but after that the sermon was full of interest and relevance. Preacher read off his phone, leaving silent pauses for us to take his questions to heart.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Preparing for Christmas. Do we love with a generosity that overrides our prejudices? What difference will your faith, hope or love make to others this Christmas? What would it take to increase it?
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The sermon was the best bit.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The state of the walls. Moss is growing in places. The plaster has fallen off in great chunks.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
People offered me coffee and let me wander round and inspect the building, which is too good to let go.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Great. Served from under the staircase to the organ.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 — I wish them well. But I can't repress a sneaking feeling that they would be happier in a modern building, and the fabric of the church urgently needs expert attention.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
I enjoyed the contrast of building and liturgy.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The mould on the walls and the missing bits of plaster columns.