Mystery Worshipper: Euryanthe
Church: St Ebbe’s
Location: Oxford, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 9 October 2005, 11:30am
From the outside, an unremarkable if large traditional Anglican building – not something to stop and look at on the Oxford landscape. Large posters outside the entrance welcome you to the church. On the inside, the pews have been knocked out and it's been rearranged with a platform on the north side where the leader stands.
This is a big and lively evangelical Anglican church that caters particularly to the huge student community in Oxford, although there are many families and older folk around.
St Ebbe’s is right in the centre of Oxford – immediate neighbourhood of ancient buildings and dons on bicycles. The church is on St Ebbe's Street, right by the Westgate shopping centre.
The service was led by Sam Allberry, student pastor, and the preacher was the Revd Vaughan Roberts, rector.
What was the name of the service?"The 11.30." The 11.30 service is particularly aimed at students and this was the first service of the new academic year.
How full was the building?
Absolutely packed with students.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
As we walked in we were handed a service sheet, and then a series of people wearing welcome badges smilingly ushered us to our seats – lots of brief greetings. After the notices there was a designated spot to say hello to someone you'd not spoken to yet, so we exchanged the usual "Where are you from?" "What college?" "What subject?" Typical freshers week small talk.
Was your pew comfortable?
It was a nice padded wooden chair – perfectly adequate.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Noisy, lots of people still coming in during the last few minutes (including us). It seemed many people were greeting long-lost friends after the long university summer vacation.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Hello and welcome to the 11.30 service... [drowned out by noise]... I think we'll start by singing our first hymn whilst the last few people find their seats."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The service sheet had all the hymns and the confession written on it. We also had a notice sheet with a space to write sermon notes. There were New International Version Bibles in the pews, which Father Roberts encouraged everyone to refer to frequently during the sermon.
What musical instruments were played?
From what I could hear... keyboard, guitar, bass, trumpet, drums.
Did anything distract you?
To be honest, this was a pretty focussed service, but I distracted myself by searching the congregation for familiar faces. Also, I was struggling to try to balance the Bible and sermon notes on my lap and kept dropping things – a bit embarrassing!
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
"Hearty" is the word that springs to mind. Primarily the classic evangelical hymns, e.g. "Holy Holy Holy" and "And can it be", led well by the music group. Between the confession and prayers there were two more songs, modern this time. Looking around, I spotted the odd hand raised, but most people were just singing out. A really rousing sound!
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 – Father Roberts is an excellent preacher, no doubt about it. It was an expository sermon, working through the passage verse by verse, with relevant cultural and practical applications throughout.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The passage was Ecclesiastes 2 (the folly of pursuing pleasure to fill emptiness, which can only be filled by God). The preacher highlighted the three attempts at finding meaning that the Teacher tries: the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom, the pursuit of pleasure, and the pursuit of wealth. All three are found to be meaningless and futile in the face of mortality. In a city like Oxford, where so many idolise learning, and after the feast of hedonism known as freshers week, this was a very poignant sermon. Father Roberts drew attention to the only glimmer of hope in Ecclesiastes – that the Teacher is a believer in God and that Jesus eventually came and broke through to us so that we could know God and find meaning and purpose by putting him at the centre of our lives.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
After my first week in the secular and hedonistic student culture, the sermon was a brilliant reminder about what is actually meaningful and worthwhile.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Actually, 45 minutes of sermon is about 10 minutes past my concentration span. Father Roberts spoke well, but just as he reached the climax of his sermon about the glimmer of hope, he'd lost me.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I couldn't have got lost if I'd tried. Every time I stood by myself for more than 10 seconds, a friendly person would come up and introduce him or herself. Oxford is crawling with freshers at this time of year, and St Ebbe's was obviously geared up to welcome them.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Student Lunch! £2.50 for a hot meal and squash eaten on laps outside in the garden (just about warm enough). By this point I had found some people I knew. There was free dessert for all newcomers and an introduction to church life. More opportunities to be welcomed. I felt very comprehensively welcomed!
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 – In fact... I probably will. They seem really well geared up for people just like me!
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Definitely, although I think I'll feel better when I know a few people. It was good to chat to one or two new people I really made a connection with, though. Quite exciting really.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The singing. Great to be surrounded by loads of young people declaring God's holiness and goodness in the words that have been sung by so many people down the years.