Mystery Worshipper: Strange Pilgrim
Church: St George's
Location: Jesmond, Newcastle upon Tyne, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 6 January 2008, 9:30am
Imposing and beautiful late-Victorian church in a strange but effective mixture of Gothic and Byzantine styles. Especially impressive mosaics and tiling in the sanctuary, in a sort of cross between Ravenna and a Barcelona opera house.
There are activities for all age groups. Every Friday there is a cafe hour where people may drop in for tea, coffee, cakes or scones. They also sponsor events in the community, including a Christmas Market, Candlemas Pantomime, and Spring Fete. There are two services each Sunday morning, with a third service on the first Sunday of the month and an evening Taize service the second Sunday. Weekday services alternate between holy communion and morning prayer.
A mixture of studentsville in the streets of typical Tyneside flats (two storey terraces) and middle-class suburbia nearer to the church. Many small hotels, clubs and wine-bars in this neighbourhood, which is seen as one of the trendier suburbs of Newcastle. A beautiful wide open space like a village green in front of the church.
Celebrant and preacher was the vicar, the Revd Dr Nick Chamberlain. Joan Grenfell led the intercessions.
What was the name of the service?Parish Communion.
How full was the building?
Probably less than half full, but in that vast church it would mean at least 100 worshippers. The congregation seemed a fairly representative cross-section of the neighbourhood, and appeared organised, purposeful and, in a typically low-key Anglican way, devout and prayerful. There was a good mixture of ages (including some lively but well-behaved young children), though as it was outside term, the student population was doubtless under-represented.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
The welcome team almost literally fell over each other in their haste to hand us books, which they did with warm smiles. Friendly but not chatty greetings at the peace.
Was your pew comfortable?
Well-made bench (presumably contemporary with the building), which was reasonably comfortable both for sitting and kneeling.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Unfortunately we arrived just a few seconds before the service started, so it is impossible to say. Judging by people's demeanour (and the fact that they were quite scattered in the pews) I expect there was probably reasonable silence with perhaps some discreet chat.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Locally-produced service book for the Christmas-Epiphany season (Common Worship order 1), plus Hymns Ancient and Modern (New Standard) and a notice sheet that also gave the prayers and readings for the day (in the New Revised Standard version).
What musical instruments were played?
Organ. There was also a large robed choir of men and women.
Did anything distract you?
The proportions and embellishment of the building were fascinating. This must be one of the highest (in an architectural sense) churches in England and it is an achievement that in a Northumbrian January it did not feel unbearably cold. Another distraction was seeing the heads of the priest and assistants looking rather like a fairground shooting range when they sat down behind the altar.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Dignified Anglican eucharist, just on the high side of middle of the road. There was a noticeable smell of incense at the beginning of the service (doubtless in honour of the feast) but it was not used liturgically and had burnt out well before the end. Formal, but the friendly atmosphere took it out of the stiff- upper-lip category. The choir sang part of a Latin mass setting (which was not identified) and an anthem; the Gloria and the hymns were congregational.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – Father Nick had an engaging style, using personal anecdotes and humour to illustrate the theology, rather than, as is often the case, scattering bits of theology on top of a personal diatribe or performance.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
He said that the action of the Magi – journeying toward the Christ Child – was more important than the gifts, significant as they were. It showed a willingness to put worship first, and to recognise what is good. Too much of our religion, especially for the English, starts with looking at what is wrong and then seeing how to put it right. Rather, we should start by affirming what is good, looking for what is positive, and building on that. This church, he said, was built for worship first and foremost. We need to celebrate Epiphany as worship.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The affirmation of the value of worship in the sermon. The choir sang the anthem ("From the Rising of the Sun", by F A G Ouseley) from the back of the church during communion, rather than from the acoustically less effective choir stalls.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Kneeling for the eucharistic prayer is not necessarily a bad idea, but sitting I find inappropriate. It would have seemed discourteous or at least odd to be the only one standing, but to be kneeling when most others were sitting was (mentally, not physically) uncomfortable. Communion was distributed from the otherwise unused high altar, but mass was celebrated at a rather makeshift and cramped altar on the chancel steps. I'm not generally an enthusiast for ad orientem celebrations, but in a building such as this it would seem a better solution in the absence of a well-thought-out reordering scheme. Such half-measures rather contradicted the vicar's message in the sermon that worship was the priority.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
We didn't have time to look lost, as the lady in the pew in front immediately turned round and, without assuming we were visitors (which would have been embarrassing if in fact we'd been attending for weeks) made friendly conversation. On the way out, people were queuing up to shake hands with the vicar, who greeted us warmly and invited us to go to the hall for coffee.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
As we had a long journey ahead of us, we didn't stay. But the parish website mentions regular fair trade coffee mornings, so I assume it is fairly traded. From the general air of quality about the place, I guess too that it might have been real, not instant.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – It's a bit too far to commute (150 miles), but if it were round the corner I would find it an ideal spiritual home, if just a little too conscious of its Anglican respectability.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. And more particularly, to know that solid liberal Anglicanism is far from dead.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
:"We need to celebrate Epiphany as worship."