Mystery Worshipper: Wes Charles
Church: St Andrew's
Location: Congresbury, Somerset, England
Date of visit: Thursday, 24 December 2009, 11:30pm
An old grey-stone building, consecrated on 11 July 1215. It has the fourth heaviest peal of bells in the world, and they were forged between 1606 and 1754. Inside are two rows of stone and black marble pillars, joined by arches, many of which have gargoyles on top. The floor is of flagstones and wood. There is a refectory on the same site dating from around 1470. There is stained glass on the right hand windows and behind the altar. Separating the nave from the chancel is a wooden screen, above which was suspended vertically a thin white sheet. At the back was a large, over-decorated Christmas tree. At the end of many of the pews, down the aisles, were seven-foot-tall candle stands with three candles on top. The altar cloth was embroidered with a nativity scene.
There are a number of home groups, each with a different approach to the Bible and growing towards God, as well as many other groups and outreaches. See their website for details. They also put on a wide variety of different types of services, ranging from 1662 Book of Common Prayer to cafe communion. The refectory is available for hire.
Congresbury is a village between Bristol and Weston-super-Mare. It seems a fairly affluent area. There are a number of nice pubs nearby.
The Revd Matthew Thomson, vicar, and a Welsh lady who gave her name only as Kay, but who may have been Kay Friend, lay reader. Kay provided directions for the congregation throughout the service (e.g. sit down, stand up, etc.).
What was the name of the service?Midnight Communion
How full was the building?
Comfortably full. No spare seats but also no one standing.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
A polite yet unobtrusive "hello" as I was handed a service book.
Was your pew comfortable?
Yes, it was a good pew, solid wood, with a long cushion on top. Until others sat down, the cushion had a tendency to slip.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Subdued chatter and some seasonal organ music.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
The vicar said, "Good evening, everyone, and gosh, it's lovely to see so many people here tonight." He then walked to the back of the church to light a candle and to introduce the first hymn, "Silent Night." Everyone seemed confused as to which way to turn, but we soon worked it all out.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
A 46-page St Andrews carol booklet called Glory to the New-Born King and a service sheet with some other carols (the wrong ones!).
What musical instruments were played?
A very impressive-sounding organ.
Did anything distract you?
At communion time, the vicar extended a very warm invitation for people to come forward to receive, and the church went very quiet for a few minutes. It was a nice moment. Then the first couple of people headed up to take communion, one of whom walked straight into one of the seven-foot-tall candle holders on the pew ends. This caused a loud clatter and made me wonder whether hot wax would fly everywhere. Shortly afterwards, as the organist sat back down, she knocked the keyboard, disturbing the moment still further. I spent the next five minutes wondering whether the gentleman two rows in front of me would knock some precariously-placed service sheets onto the floor. He didn't, but Kay, the Welsh lady directing the service, did!
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Recognisably Anglican, yet relaxed and quite informal in a friendly way. Not at all stuffy or high church. The vicar was wearing a white cassock. There were no acolytes or crucifer, just the vicar and Kay. The service came from Common Worship. No chanting, but we sang some traditional Christmas carols in addition to the aforementioned "Silent Night." The communion bread was taken from a baked loaf, not pressed wafers.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
Unfortunately, I'd left my watch in the car, but I would estimate at 10 to 15 minutes.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – The vicar had a relaxed and conversational style and came across as warm and friendly.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
After a couple of opening jokes, which were quite good in an "embarrassing Dad" kind of way, the vicar moved onto some of his recent home visits to the sick and the elderly. He pointed out that if you put bread and wine on one side of a set of scales, and a million pounds on the other, these elderly people would choose the communion every time, probably with the comment that it is the highlight of their day. We should all have this open and uncomplicated approach to religion, rather than getting bogged down in too much theology. We should also try to be more Jesus-focused 365 days per year, rather than just at Christmas and Easter.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The sermon, before which most lights were switched off, leaving just the candles to light the church. The white sheet, which I'd been wondering about, was used to project a nativity scene, which was a nice touch.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Unfortunately, they cancelled the nativity scene from the laptop computer before they switched the projector off, leaving us with the Windows wallpaper for a few seconds.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Unusually, the service ended with the exchange of peace, which meant that the first few minutes after the service were spent shaking hands. Kay came over and greeted us enthusiastically, and a little later the vicar came and spoke to us, as did one of the congregation.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none, and we headed home to bed at a quarter past one on Christmas morning!
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 – It was a really lovely service, and the vicar and congregation were really friendly. For me personally, I prefer something a little more formal and high church, but if I lived locally, I'd seriously consider this one.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, definitely, particularly during the sermon and the communion.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The confusion over which way to face for "Silent Night."