Mystery Worshipper: Bishop of Stortford
Church: Holy Trinity
Location: Witney, Oxfordshire, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 13 September 2009, 10:45am
It is a neo-Gothic stone building from the Victorian era, looking much larger on the outside than the space it provides inside. It has recently been reordered, with a nave altar and chairs replacing the pews. However, the choir still uses the old choir stalls, partially screened off from the rest of the congregation, and the eucharist is ministered at the communion rail at the high altar.
They conduct house groups for people who wish to study the Bible or discuss moral issues. The celebrate holy communion on all Sundays of the month except the fourth, when they recite morning prayer.
The town of Witney, in rural Oxfordshire, derived its wealth from the wool trade and was once famous for the manufacture of blankets. The blanket industry is no longer part of the town's economy, but the town still retains many of the trappings of wealth. Holy Trinity Church is in a newer residential area in the corner of a small village green. There is a small children's playground behind it and the building itself is partially hidden amongst a clump of trees.
The Rt Revd Bill Down, retired Bishop of Bermuda and Honorary Assistant Bishop of Oxford, presided. Bishop Down was assisted by his wife, Sally Down. Jeff Hill, team evangelist, preached.
What was the name of the service?Welcome to Worship Holy Communion.
How full was the building?
Around 100 people, which is approaching the capacity of the church. About half of these, including this Mystery Worshipper, were there to witness the baptism of Leo Adderley.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
One person greeted me with a "Good morning" and another handed me a stack of service books as I walked through the door, trying to control my four children.
Was your pew comfortable?
Yes, very adequate upholstered church chair with a tray in the back of the next chair for the multitude of books.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The large baptismal party, many of whom were not regular churchgoers, were in good voice. With the organist providing some background, it had something of the air of a wedding rather than a Sunday service.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"We sing our first hymn from the green hymn book, number 486."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
I was handed a decent library of books when I arrived, including the New English Hymnal and the Holy Trinity Hymn Book. There was also a parish newsletter, a service sheet for holy communion, and a separate service sheet for holy baptism. The Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version, was in each row of chairs.
What musical instruments were played?
Did anything distract you?
As preparations were being made to distribute communion, one of the wafers fell to the floor. The bishop bent down, picked it up, and put it back in with the others. As I went up for communion, there was this nagging suspicion in the back of my mind that I might receive that particular wafer.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Straight down the middle of the road. Nothing remarkable nor dreadful about it. A nice service of the kind I have come to expect from a decent C of E parish. The service was called "Welcome to Worship" and was one of those slightly, but only very slightly, shortened holy communion liturgies with plenty of hymns. But alas, the baptism of little Leo did not go all that well – read on!
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
6 – Jeff Hill had the manner of a computer programmer giving his first presentation after going on the "how to do a presentation" training course. He used a slide projector to reinforce his sermon. He included a cartoon joke about text messages that contained several examples of the abbreviations that people use when texting. (I have given him an extra point, because the use of text messaging as a theme in the sermon got my teenage daughter's attention, which is a minor miracle for any preacher.)
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
He preached on Mark 8:27-30 (the disciples are not sure who Christ is, but Peter confesses him as the Messiah) in the style of a group of teenagers texting to each other. He had some fun with this concept, flashing up pictures of a mobile phone on his projector with the letters, for example, "WITG" (Who is this guy?) and "NAS" (Not absolutely sure), and so forth. He threw in a few references to baptism, which was, for half the congregation, the main event of the morning.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
This was a typical English congregation coming together for their typically English act of Sunday worship – confidently, quietly and without a lot of fuss. It was a nice example of Church of England community. Perhaps this is what heaven will be like.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
At the baptism, Leo, who is about 18 months old, was not at all impressed by the process of having water splashed in his face "in the name of the Father." In fact, he screamed for his mummy as though he had just fallen down and bumped his head. However, rather than stop and comfort the poor lamb, the bishop continued to slap more water in his face "in the name of the Son and Holy Spirit." I thought it rather unfair on the chap, since this was his big moment of welcome into the Church, that he found the experience so traumatic. But he soon forgot the trauma, and had a right good time waving his lighted candle about and splashing wax on the floor.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I'm afraid I didn't really get a chance to hang around until everyone had left, as I was involved with taking photos of the family.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
I didn't manage to find where the coffee was served - there was certainly no mention of it in the notices. There was a Traidcraft stall ("Fighting Poverty Through Trade") at the back of the church selling ground coffee, amongst other things.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – I was in my comfort zone here with the Church of England at its best. Possibly a bit bland for some tastes, but you could do a lot worse.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Apart from my slight pangs of shame at being part of a religion that uses water torture as an initiation rite for toddlers, I was filled with the gladness that I always feel when standing amongst a crowd of friends and strangers, united in a well run eucharist.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The baptism of Leo.