Mystery Worshipper: Cherokee
Church: St George
Location: Heaviley, Stockport, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 7 May 2006, 10:15am
A large, imposing and attractive late Victorian building of red sandstone, with a huge spire, large nave and two side aisles. Built by a wealthy local mill owner, a Mr Fearn, along with its associated primary school and parish rooms, all in their own private street. A nice stone tryptych behind the altar and some ornate carving on the pulpit.
It is part of a group of three churches in the Stockport South West Team. Today was the Scouts' and youth groups' flag parade, a monthly occurrence. They sponsor several youth groups and a young adults group called The Grumpy Soldiers Club, in addition to the usual choir, bellringers, Mothers Union, etc.
Stockport is in Cheshire, in northern England, not far from Manchester. Dating back to Saxon times, the town expanded rapidly during the Industrial Age, leading to the usual environmental problems. In fact, Friedrich Engels wrote in 1844 that Stockport was "renowned as one of the duskiest, smokiest holes in the whole of the industrial area." But a major revitalisation effort is now underway. Heaviley is a fairly typical inner suburb, with mainly old Victorian terraces renovated in a variety of styles and tastes. Straight opposite the church is a row of pre-Victorian cottages with long gardens. One can see a few boarded-up shops, banks and cinemas here and there.
The Rev. Libby Lane, vicar.
What was the name of the service?The St George Service – All Age Morning Prayer and Parade
How full was the building?
Both side aisles were empty and there were about 120 or so in the centre aisles. They made the area seem quite full, but in fact the church was less than half full.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
We noted two sidesmen on duty and vowed not to go inside until one of them acknowledged us. Finally one of them bade us a good morning while the other handed us service leaflets, saying, "Everything you need today is in here." As we took our pew, a lady sat down in front of us and turned and said hello. Then another lady joined us in our pew and also said hello. The vicar rushed past with a "Good morning," but that was it.
Was your pew comfortable?
It was hard, with only a thin runner covering it. Something in the carvings in the back dug into my spine.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
There was a lot of quiet, whispered conversation, but some people were sitting silently.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning and welcome," delivered loudly and with conviction by the vicar.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
A leaflet entitled The St George's Service All Age Morning Prayer and Parade, bearing on its cover the admonition "Be bold, be strong." A newsletter containing a list of parish events was tucked inside.
What musical instruments were played?
Organ for some of the hymns, piano and drums for others. The piano also accompanied the singers quietly during the intercessions.
Did anything distract you?
The children in the nearby children's corner were making quite a bit of noise, and occasionally one or another of them would foray into the congregation. There were two very old flags hanging in the transept and we were trying to guess their provenance. (Cheshire Regiment, we were later told.)
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Modern and informal with no traditional language. It appeared to be at odds with the grandeur of the building.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
3 – The vicar spoke clearly and directly and pitched it where everyone could access it. But I'll have more to say below in the part about the hellish bits.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
It was based on Peter's denial of Christ. The basic idea was that if we believe, anything is possible.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Between each of the intercessions, the singers quietly sang a verse of the hymn "Christ is the world in which we move" to a gentle piano accompaniment. At the end of the service the organ took over with majestic and confident chords. A well played organ always does it for me. As we were leaving, someone mentioned that the organist can turn it into a seaside Wurlitzer if he tries.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Sadly, the sermon. In a worthy attempt to involve the children and to put across her point, the vicar asked a group of little girls to come up front and display some pictures they had drawn. Unfortunately the children were overwhelmed by the occasion and so did not always do as they should have, thereby spoiling the effect somewhat. On top of that, the vicar forgot to tell them when they could put the pictures down, and so they became increasingly fidgety as their arms began to tire. Then the vicar and the little girls demonstrated some actions for us to do during the singing of an "interactive hymn." That was worse for me. Finally, the vicar's throat mike kept going on and off.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
As we walked out down the aisle, a man described the history of the building and the flags we had seen. The vicar shook our hand as we left and invited us to coffee in the parish room.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
The tea was hot and served in proper cups with saucers, but we didn't get a full cup! Coffee and juice were also available, and there were some biscuits. Donations were invited. No labels were in evidence on the tins, and so we couldn't tell if anything was fairly traded or not. We stood around for about 10 minutes looking lost, but no one took pity on us and so we left.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
3 – There was nothing that made us feel welcome or that appealed to us in the service.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Not particularly. The service was bland. If we had been vacillating in our faith we would not have felt any more positive afterwards.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The imposing grandeur of the building.