Mystery Worshipper: ChurchInvisible
Date of visit: Sunday, 3 July 2022, 10:30am
Emmanuel was built in 1847 by the Bath City Architect George Manners and his partner J Elkington Gill. It is built in the English Perpendicular Gothic style, dressed with limestone. Its four-stage Somerset tower has buttresses, a fine parapet and a corner stair turret. The interior was modernised, possibly in the 1980s, when the pews were removed, the floor was carpeted, and a nave altar added.
The church has a quite elderly congregation, who were warm and welcoming. They are a sister congregation to the church of Christ Church, Weston-super-Mare, which I think has a slightly younger demographic.
The church was built soon after the opening of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Bristol and Exeter Railway, which saw thousands of visitors visiting what was by then a growing town, enjoying the Victorian boom in seaside holidays. Emmanuel is halfway between the train station and the Grand Pier, showing how it was built for holidaymakers, and the area around it has many hotels and B&Bs.
The curate led the service, while a retired self-supporting minister, a member of the congregation, preached. Other church members took the readings and led extemporary prayers.
What was the name of the service?Holy Communion.
How full was the building?
There were about 35 people at the service, which felt reasonably full, as Emmanuel is not a massive building.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes. I arrived late, but there was still someone by the door to greet me and hand me my books and a service sheet.
Was your pew comfortable?
It was a padded chair, which was not very pretty, but was quite comfortable.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
As a stupid tourist, I arrived late because I got lost on the way.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
The first words I heard were the announcement of the first hymn.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
We had the pamphlet for Common Worship Holy Communion Order One, the combined edition of Mission Praise (I hadn't seen one of those for a while), and a service sheet with the readings and the collect. There were also NIV pew Bibles.
What musical instruments were played?
Did anything distract you?
I dropped my service sheet, and the person next to me picked it up, thinking it was theirs. I spent quite some time plotting how to get it back, which I did by the end of the service when the person realised they had two service sheets.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was 1980s evangelical, with hearty singing of traditional hymns, and a couple of Graham Kendrick songs. We used the service book, and everything we were meant to do was clearly but unobtrusively mentioned, which was incredibly helpful. Most people just sat and stood at the appointed times with their hands by their sides. However, there were interesting minority groups of people who genuflected and crossed themselves during the liturgy, or who raised their hands during the singing. Everyone seemed fine with both.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
20 minutes, but this included a short time of extemporary prayer. I was later told it was a bit longer than usual.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 — It was more homely than erudite, but was well adapted for the congregation, and delivered with great warmth.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The curate had been priested the previous week, and this was her first occasion presiding at communion. So our preacher talked about her call – the good and bad bits of it – and reminded and encouraged the congregation to care for her as part of their Christian call too. At the end of the sermon, he asked members of the congregation to pray for the curate, and someone took a microphone round to those who wished to do so.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
It was absolutely lovely sharing in the joy of the congregation with their newly priested curate. This seems to be a very caring and kind congregation.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
It was sad that other than the curate, I (middle aged) was the youngest person in the building by about two decades.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I joined the coffee queue, and someone very quickly came up to speak to me, introduced me to others, and made me welcome.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Standard white Ikea mug, with tea or instant coffee and biscuits. The tea was a little weak for my taste, but that was probably because I was the first tea drinker in the queue, and because I like aggressively strong tea. There was also some leftover cake from the celebratory priesting tea party which had happened the day before. It looked delicious, but I had just had a cooked breakfast.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 — I liked the church, but won’t be back in Weston-super-Mare any time soon. If I was, I would visit, but it would be difficult to imagine making it my home church if I lived in the area, as I was so much younger than everyone else – despite my own lack of youth.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. The warmth and care among the congregation for each other and for anyone who might wander in made me feel very glad to be a Christian. Despite not immediately looking like the sort of church other churches would want to emulate, Emmanuel seems to be very good at stuff where 100 focus groups on fellowship and 1,000 ministry initiative working parties fail. ‘See how these Christians love one another.’
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
A vignette: the hymn was the Kendrick classic, ‘The Servant King’, and I heard the line, ‘My heavy load he chose to bear’ with particular clarity from one voice. I looked around sneakily, and realised it was sung by a man holding a hymn book for a severely disabled congregation member – literally bearing a burden for him. I got a bit choked up.