Mystery Worshipper: Lady Lyndon
Church: Methodist Central Hall
Location: Coventry, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 2 September 2007, 10:30am
Built on the site of a Wesleyan chapel and opened in 1932, Central Hall is one of the few buildings that remained standing during the Coventry Blitz in 1940, though it was extensively damaged. Central Hall has several rooms and halls and is used as a major business, conference and concert venue. It is one of 16 places of Methodist worship in the Coventry circuit.
In the words of the website, "Central Hall is no mere preaching centre it is a real, living Church and that is the secret of its success." As well as providing three Sunday services, Central Hall also has a weekly youth group, snooker club and prayer breakfast, plus social activities.
The church is in the heart of Coventry, a thriving city. Coventry was devastated by German bombing on the night of 14 November 1940, when the historic centre of the city, including the Gothic cathedral, was destroyed. Since the Second World War, the city has prospered with the growth of the motor industry in the 1950s and 60s, and suffered as it declined from the 1970s onwards.
Mr Les Armstrong, local preacher.
What was the name of the service?Morning Worship
How full was the building?
The main hall seats 845 and there were 30-40 people in the congregation... so it was practically empty.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
We were greeted by the minister, Revd Viv Gasteen, who was due to preach at another church in the Methodist circuit. With a few minutes to spare she took us under her wing and provided us with various leaflets. She introduced us to the door stewards, two delightful ladies. Viv had a cold, so with her Bible under one arm and a box of Lemsips under the other, she marched out of the building. Lord Lyndon and I crept tentatively into the main hall. It was empty, as we were half an hour early. One of the stewards came over and chatted to us for around 10 minutes.
Was your pew comfortable?
The seats were fantastic – so comfortable! They were interlocking red foamy things that folded up as soon as you stood up so you had to make sure you pulled the seat down again before sitting, to avoid falling on your backside. I was fascinated by these chairs and spent a good five minutes or so studying the mechanism of the seat up / seat down movement.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
It was quiet because it was deserted at first. People did file in noiselessly during our chat with the steward and my study of the seats.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning! I'd like to bid you welcome."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Hymns & Psalms. There weren't any Bibles near to us but we saw other members of the congregation with copies of the New Revised Version Bible. The preacher did his own readings and he read from the DDV (Double-Dutch Version) of the Bible. I will explain later.
What musical instruments were played?
A young university student played the organ magnificently for most of the hymns, then he moved over to a piano for the final hymn.
Did anything distract you?
Oh crumbs, where do I start? I'm sending a photo with this report (see below) and hope that it is published so you can see how green the church is! There is a big green carpeted stairway (to heaven) behind the altar. The front of church seats are a matching green, the ceiling is a different shade of green. The walls are painted, in the words of the Procol Harum song, A Whiter Shade of Green. Some of the paintwork in the room is pink, which is an interesting and brave choice.Yes, I was distracted by the green, but I'm sure I'd get used to it. Also, I kept sliding down the comfy seats and had to keep hoisting myself up.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was so quiet! The hymns were sung almost silently by most people, but not us. Lord Lyndon and I sang heartily, probably distracting the rest of the congregation.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
6 – Mr Armstrong described himself as a balding Scot – his words, so I'm not being insulting here. OK, the number of active hair follicles is irrelevant and so are his Scottish roots, but he spoke quickly and quietly. Added to theregional accent, it meant that I couldn't understand everything he said. This is why I referred to the Bible as being the Double-Dutch Version, as I couldn't understand much of that either. However, he did have a cheerful, sing-songy type of voice, full of inflection, so I didn't switch off or find myself nodding off in my lovely chair. On the contrary, despite thedifficulty, he was an interesting, very likeable man.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Mr Armstrong discussed his work as a volunteer visitor to prisoners. He described the ripple effect of crime, not just on the victims and their families, but also on the families of the criminals. Many of the inmates he visited were remorseful and had a hunger to "renew" and many signed up for Bible courses. I think the big point was to pray for prisoners and people who work with them, even if we don't feel able to visit prisons ourselves. He also mentioned that writing to prisoners can have a major positive impact on their lives, particularly for foreign prisoners whose families are abroad.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Um... the after-service cake was heavenly.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
I heard a mild rushing in my ears throughout the service and I did wonder if I should get my blood pressure checked. However, I realised halfway through that it was the sound/microphone system turned up high to accommodate Mr Armstrong's soft voice.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
The steward (Ray) who spoke to us before the service came straight over and invited us to Wesley's Coffee Lounge for refreshments. The steward's wife, Margaret, chatted to us – she was an angel and I loved her immediately. The minister, Revd Viv Gasteen, returned from preaching at another church and she was pleasant and made us feel welcome.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
The tea was perfect, hot and just the right strength. We were served refrigerated chocolate chip muffins which were the best I've ever tasted. Heavenly! I resisted the temptation to ask for another one, but only just.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 – I like the idea of being part of a circuit of churches, rather than being based at just the one. I was assured that congregation numbers are not usually this low.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
I'd like to mention two things: the scrumptious cake and the colour green.