Mystery Worshipper: Eiderduck
Church: St Barnabas with St Bartholomew
Location: Heigham Grove, Norwich, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 20 October 2019, 10:30am
St Barnabas’ Church was consecrated in 1906, built following population growth in the area. The mother church, St Bartholomew’s, was destroyed in the Blitz – and the remains form a small public park some half a mile away. To my eye, the church building is an unremarkable example of the type. The font alcove by the entrance is used as a bike/buggy park. Around the walls is a range of Marian statuary, Stations of the Cross, devotional knick-knacks. The pews have recently been cleared from the nave into the north aisles. The south aisle houses a large children’s area and kitchenette. The sanctuary has been cleared and carpeted and has two large TV screens. The Easter candle is dated 2013. The altar is forward of the chancel steps. Beside the nave altar is a sound/AV desk with electronic piano. The organ is unused. More interesting is the worship conversation that the interior reveals – see below.
St Barnabas is part of the STN (St Thomas Norwich) HTB plant – churches planted by Holy Trinity Brompton. St Thomas Norwich’s website tells us that: ‘STN is all about making connections. We want to connect with God, each other and the wider world … First and foremost, we are followers of Jesus who want to serve God and make Him known. We meet together to worship, pray and grow closer together, offering support and friendship to one another.’
Heigham is a hamlet just to the west of Norwich, about 100 miles northeast of London. There are two ways to approach St Barnabas. Firstly through the 1960s council estate, a design disaster perpetrated by architects who knew nothing of human nature: confusing to navigate, confused spaces; green squares and aprons ‘owned’ and cared for by no one, unsafe pedestrian routes with poor sight lines. Secondly, through the new Goldsmith Street council housing development – recent winner of the Stirling Prize for excellence in architecture bestowed by the Royal Institute of British Architects. The designers have shown a mature understanding of human nature, getting right so much that was wrong in the old estate next door. The church stands between these two estates. The Fat Cat pub, a 300m walk away, recently won the Beer Pub of the Year 2019 award given by the Good Pub Guide. Lovely.
The service was led by a priest. The head of the St Thomas Trust gave a short talk. Various congregation members read/prayed.
What was the name of the service?Traditional and Family Friendly Service with Holy Communion.
How full was the building?
Ten when I arrived; twenty-five as the service started. Thin.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
A lovely older lady said hello and offered me a hymn book.
Was your pew comfortable?
Yes – standard wooden chair.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
With ten people present, I stuck out. The priest came over and greeted me – I suspect that the lady who had offered me the hymn book gave him a nudge. The big TVs at the front cycled between ‘Welcome to St Barnabas,’ ‘No signal detected,’ and a mountain scene.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
'Welcome to St Barnabas.' Another visitor and I were welcomed by name.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Songs of Fellowship – though everything was shown on the TVs.
What musical instruments were played?
Electronic Piano. The mic'd up piano player also led the singing.
Did anything distract you?
Two lovely toddlers playing under the high altar. You will not be surprised that this made me think of St Cuthbert, who is said to have preached to eider ducks (often called Cuddy ducks after the good saint) to the point where they would nest around his altar. Any church that welcomes children being children during worship is OK with me.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Distinctly Anglican in shape: informal style. The priest wore no robes – just clerical shirt, dress trousers, socks and shoes. Good prayers that embraced all, but some were a bit too informal for me – asking the Lord ‘just’ to do this or that. The confession was a bit odd. We did a thing with a seed – you know, dying and rising stuff. I lost the thread of what was happening a bit and came back when we were asked to press the seed to the cover of our Bibles – I felt uncomfortable with this, but wasn’t following closely enough to know if I needed to be! Proper eucharistic prayer – open table. The songs were all a bit ‘80s/nursery rhyme – I hadn’t sung them for a good 20 years! Few people sang.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
There were two talks – well, one sermon at 13 minutes and one talk at 8 minutes.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 — for the sermon by the priest; 8 for the talk by the head of the St Thomas Trust. The preacher started by asking the AV desk to play a video clip. When the clip ended, the panicked-looking preacher said. ‘That’s not the clip I was expecting.’ Poor chap.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The sermon was about three things that didn’t fit together particularly well: Offering October (St Thomas Norwich’s stewardship drive); Freedom Week (a week-long event held in October to increase awareness of modern-day slavery); the Great Commission (Matthew 28 was the reading, but there was not much engagement with the text). There is one image that has stayed with me: ‘Don’t be a commemorative mug!’ The preacher showed us a Diamond Jubilee mug that sits on his dresser, but he feels sorry for the mug as it will never fulfill its true purpose as a mug: full of tea, held with hands, sipped from. As Christians we make disciples in our own image. As we grow in the likeness of Christ, that image is increasingly Christ-like. Or we can make disciples that just sit on the shelf. Don’t be a commemorative mug. The second talk was about the church’s work supporting people rescued from modern slavery. The head of the St Thomas Trust spoke with authority and passion. It was wonderful and inspiring. Lots of facts and figures, lots of details of practical work. God bless them.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The children playing under the high altar. Also, there were congregation members with learning disabilities. I always have time for churches that are inclusive in this way.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
It felt like there were two very distinct kinds of people at the church: those from the estate, and those not. It felt like this was an extension of the conversation revealed by the interior of the building as set out above, and perhaps an extension of issues still remaining from the HTB plant. The use of the font alcove as a bike park made me angry. A bike park for adult bikes, that is. Not bothered about buggies – it’s tough with young kids.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I got a coffee and wandered around for a bit. No one spoke to me. I sat with a few of the folks off the estate and I initiated a chat. The priest who first greeted me came over and joined in. There was talk of pressing me into the worship group – in a friendly inclusive way.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Good real coffee, people encouraged to bring their own travel mugs, but paper available for those who did not.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
6 — The music and the unenthusiastic singing was not my cup of tea.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, inspired by the witness of the church in this difficult estate.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
I suspect that I will remember ‘Don’t be a commemorative mug’ long after I forget why. And the children under the altar.