St James, Staple

St James the Great, Staple, Kent, England


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Mystery Worshipper: Miss Ericord
Church: St James the Great
Location: Staple, Kent, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 18 December 2011, 4:30pm

The building

A beautiful Norman flint church with some traces of Saxon, mainly 14th and 15th century. The square tower is 13th century. There is a lovely lych-gate at the road. The lych-gate bears the date 1664, but some think it may be much older. Inside, there is an impressive beamed ceiling plus whitewashed walls. A new stained glass window in the south wall, symbolising the soul's spiritual journey toward heaven, was particularly noteworthy, glowing beautifully in shades of blue as we came up the path.

The church

St James forms a parish with St Mary Woodnesborough, a couple of miles away. I spotted a "who's who" board with mug shots of the priest-in-charge and churchwardens, but couldn't see any other information about the community. There were children's drawings along the far wall so I assume there is a Sunday school of some kind.

The neighborhood

Staple is a small village in east Kent, a few miles from the coastal town of Sandwich. The main street has some biggish detached houses and bungalows - we were impressed by the illuminated reindeer on one of the neighbours' front lawn.

The cast

The Revd Daniel Harrison led the service. Tim Hicks conducted the choir and small group of musicians. Various members of the congregation read the lessons.

What was the name of the service?

Carol Service.

How full was the building?

Fairly. It's not a huge church, and the 50 or so present comfortably fitted into the pews on either side of the main aisle.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Alas, no. The lady on the door handed my friend and me a hymn book and service sheet without even making eye contact, let alone a smile, hello, good evening, chilly out, etc.

Was your pew comfortable?

It was fine, a straight-backed wooden pew with shelf for books, a strip of carpet for sitting on, and various kneelers – which, oddly, were precariously balanced along the narrow bookshelf rather than being on the floor or hung on the back of the pew.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Warm – people chatted amongst themselves and the organ played quietly.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Good evening, everyone – and, given that we're in a medieval church in the depths of winter, a very 'warm' welcome."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Hymns Old and New and a printed service sheet.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ (played well). Also, I could hear (but not see) a flute and violin. The adult choir sang with the organ; a small electric keyboard accompanied the children's choir.

Did anything distract you?

Wondering whether the existence of St James the Great meant the existence of a corresponding St James the Feeble, or even St James the Ordinary. Also, the top of the east window above the altar was the exact shape of a pair of nutcrackers I have at home.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

Stiffish as only the English can be. Some will take issue with me, but I thought it a shame that there was no applause for the children's choir of four girls who came to the front and sang a carol.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

There was no sermon.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

Before the service, the organist played the Calypso Carol ("See him lying on a bed of straw, a draughty stable with an open door..."), which I hadn't heard in ages and had forgotten how much I loved. It was wonderful.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

A couple of the soprano top notes were perhaps a little unwise for an amateur choir.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

I exchanged a few words with the lady sitting next to me, but everyone was busy putting on their coats, hats, scarves, etc. and generally heading out.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

I'm not sure there was any. As we headed toward the back of the church, there were a couple of people standing with mugs. But no invitation had been issued nor was anything offered, so we didn't investigate.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

6 – This was not a typical Sunday service so I'm reluctant to judge too far based just on this visit.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

Sing, choirs of angels? Of course!

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

What other Jameses there might be to contrast with St James the Great: St James the Good-Enough? St James the Tries-Hard? St James the Mediocre?

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