Mystery Worshipper: Sophiology
Church: Cowley Road Methodist
Location: Oxford, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 16 August 2009, 10:30am
A Grade II listed stone building in a prominent spot on the busy Cowley Road, it is hard to miss. Designed by the eccentric late 19th century architect Stephen Salter, it was opened in 1904 and is a highly original reinterpretation of Late Gothic meets Arts and Crafts. The building was completely renovated in 1984. The ground floor holds several community rooms. Upstairs, the sanctuary is a large, airy, carpeted hall with a wooden roof and big windows on both sides letting in the sunlight. At the front wall behind the altar is a large organ that takes up almost the whole width of the room. Homemade banners hang along the hall, proclaiming such things as "Christ is Risen" or commemorating the centenary of the church. Noticeboards stand to the sides of the sanctuary. It is very obviously a multipurpose room, feeling half like a church hall (it has a kitchen attached).
As the church website explains: "The linked black and white hands of our logo represent our multi-racial congregation, and the diversity of our local community." As well as the main Sunday service at 10.30am, they have a service in Punjabi at 3.00pm that has been offered since 1967. During term time there is an evening service at 8.00 aimed at students and young adults. During the Cowley Road Carnival in July, the church serves free fair trade refreshment to passers-by.
Cowley Road is across the river from most of Oxford University and down the hill from most of Oxford Brookes University. Nonetheless it is a very lively area, with a significant immigrant community and quite a few students living out. It's full of restaurants and little shops. Once the area had a bad reputation but it's been gentrifying steadily for at least the past ten years. A Costa Coffee and a Subway sandwich shop recently moved in.
The Revd Dr Martin Wellings, minister.
What was the name of the service?Worship in English.
How full was the building?
About three-quarters of the chairs set out were full, but it was a large hall that could have taken many more. Maybe 40 or 50 people in total.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
The minister shook my hand in the foyer. A petite, elderly Asian woman in a sari asked if I was a visitor and warmly welcomed me to the church. Upstairs, an elderly gentleman held the door for me and pointed me toward the table where hymn books were being handed out.
Was your pew comfortable?
Rather than pews, there were individual stackable chairs set out. They were very comfortable, with cloth padded seats and backs.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Fairly quiet, as people were mostly already seated five minutes before the service started. A man at a grand piano was playing a subdued prelude. The congregation were mostly middle-aged or elderly, about two-thirds white and one-third black.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"I'm very pleased to be able to welcome you to worship today. The sun is shining and I see that it's brought out some beautiful summer outfits."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The Methodist Worship Book; Hymns and Praise (1983); Songs and Hymns of Fellowship (1985).
What musical instruments were played?
Only the piano, despite the presence of a rather weighty and conspicuous organ. There was no choir, but the congregation did a very creditable job with the hymns.
Did anything distract you?
A few people came in late during the gospel reading but this was not a major distraction. More serious was the hammering and ratcheting that seemed to be emanating from the back of the hall and that reached a pitch during the sermon. I wondered if there was construction, if the preparation of coffee hour was noisier than I'd hitherto realised, or whether there were children playing particularly loudly in the foyer. Whatever the reason, the minister interrupted his sermon to ask for the door to the foyer to be shut, and the noise seemed to stop.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Typically reticent English, as the minister acknowledged during the sermon, saying that perhaps the Methodist tradition could benefit from some of the enthusiasm of its 18th century roots. One of the hymns was a praise song from the folk-rock Maranatha Music tradition but it was sung in a very serious and proper way. There were very few congregational responses even where the worship book indicated them. Interestingly, though, the passing of the peace was very warm, with people circulating throughout the church to greet one another. Communion consisted of pieces of bread and individual glasses of grape juice (I'll have more to say about communion in a moment).
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
6 – The minister spoke clearly and deliberately without any affectations. He didn't develop any of the ideas to a very great extent, beyond the comments mentioned above on the worship style of the congregation and a brief digression on the evils of binge drinking.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The minister began with a discussion of the recent road works and reorganisation of bus stops in Oxford, a topic on which everyone in the city feels strongly! He then segued into the main theme, which was the question raised in Ephesians 5:15-20 (walk as wise men, understanding God's will): which way should we go? We should follow the will of God, use our time wisely, be filled with the Spirit rather than with alcohol, and be thankful to God for everything.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The warm welcome I received.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
There was enough room at the communion rail to accommodate almost all of the congregation but not quite. The back row, which included me, stayed in their seats waiting for space to open up. Everyone at the rail waited until communion had been ministered to the whole group, and then stood up in unison. As they did, the pianist began playing, as if that were the end of communion and the next hymn was about to begin. It seemed that no one in the back row would be getting communion. Happily someone broke ranks and headed for the altar, and I followed along with a couple of other people.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
As I returned the hymn books to their table, the gentleman who had greeted me earlier pointed me over to the kitchen hatch for tea and coffee. An elderly Scottish lady came up to me, very welcoming, and spent the next five minutes telling me the life stories of herself, her neighbours, and other members of the congregation.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Tea and instant coffee in small ceramic mugs were handed out through the kitchen hatch. There was no food.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
6 – Too low church for my taste, but I do admire their ties to the local community.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
Wondering whether or not there was room for me at the communion rail!