Mystery Worshipper: Wes Charles
Church: St Mary the Virgin
Location: Thame, Oxfordshire, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 11 February 2018, 10:00am
Photo: © Mark Percy and used under license The immediate thought I had when I saw the building was how large and impressive it is for such a relatively small town. After the service, the vicar explained that Thame was a major market town in the Middle Ages, with some very wealthy merchants who helped to build a very impressive church. The oldest parts of the building, such as the pillars in the nave and some of the windows, date from the early 14th century. The church was enlarged over the years, with the north transept having been added in 1442, and probably the south transept around the same time. The stalls with linenfold panelling in the chancel were bought from Thame Abbey in 1540. The building underwent major restoration between 1889 and 1897. Visually, St Mary's has an imposing square tower and a large churchyard containing some ancient tombs. Inside, it has a slightly more modern feel. An oddity is that there are pennies stuck to the floor around the church. Apparently, they were stuck there during some renovation work to mark the position of the pews, then they found they couldn't remove them, and they've been there ever since. No one minds, as they find it funny when children come in and try to pick them up.
St Mary's seems to be a very active church, and it was certainly busy on the day of my visit. They have various home groups and events for the community, such as Easter story telling and children's groups. Most years, local churches get together to run a summer holiday group called Lighthouse, where they get up to 1,000 children taking part.
Thame, named after the River Thame, which joins the River Isis at Dorchester to form the Thames, is a lovely market town in the Oxfordshire countryside with some nice pubs and plenty of little independent shops.
The Revd Alan Garratt, vicar, led the service. The sermon was given by a local retired priest but I didn't manage to get her name.
What was the name of the service?Holy Communion with Choir
How full was the building?
About 90 per cent full - it was busy.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes. A couple of people welcomed us as they gave us the service sheet. We had our three-year-old with us, so were also introduced to the children's worker straight away.
Was your pew comfortable?
It did the job - certainly more comfortable than many are.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Bubbly and talkative. Locals greeting each other, children playing with toys in the front.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Morning, everyone" from the vicar. Then: "Morning," Alan from the congregation!
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Everything was provided in the service sheet and on the screen at the front. There were Bibles on the seats: the New Revised Standard Version.
What musical instruments were played?
An organ, which sounded very convincinly like a traditional pipe organ, but which Mrs Charles (who is an organist by trade) informed me after the service was actually electric. Sounded very good to me. Chatting to someone after, I learnt that it costs a lot less to insure if it's electric too!
Did anything distract you?
Yes - wondering about the pennies all over the floor! See my earlier comment about them being glued down, but I didn't realise that at the time, and spent a reasonable amount of time wondering why people kept dropping money all over the church and why no one had picked it up!
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The vicar told me that of all the services they do at St Mary's over a month, this is the most formal Holy Communion with a choir. However, it still had a relaxed and informal low-church feel to it. The altar party were robed but it wasn't at all stuffy. Quite low church. I understand at other services they have a more informal style with a band instead of organ.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – The preacher, whose name I didn't manage to get despite lots of post-service online research, spoke in a very friendly and gentle way. She was engaging without being in-your-face. Maybe 7 is a little harsh, as she spoke well, but the content didn't quite resonate with me – a bit too fluffy for my taste when I prefer something concrete. My dad would have given her a 10 because it's more his sort of thing. Personal taste rather than a reflection of her talent as a preacher.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
"The reading was Mark 9:2-9 (the Transfiguration). The preacher posed five questions: Where, When, Who, What, Why. The event probably took place on Mount Hermon. The preacher described her own personal trip to the summit (although she cheated and went by helicopter!) and related it to Moses meeting God on top of a mountain as well. She then went on to talk about the Celtic Christian idea of thin places where we feel closer to God. We need to spend more time with God, to create a place at home to spend time with him. Study the Bible more, join a home group, and take God's light to the world.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The hymns were on the vicar's 100 Hymns for my Funeral list, which he admitted he had to whittle down a little! They were some of my favourites, particularly "Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus" (I'm an Elvis fan and he recorded that but so unusual to do it in church) and "It Is Well With My Soul."
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
For me, the notion of finding God in "thin places" was a little too far - I believe you can know God anywhere, not in special thin places. But it was interesting nonetheless. Whilst we were at at the altar rail for communion, the vicar missed the gentleman to my right and came straight to me. I didn't take the bread, as I assumed it was for the other guy, but the vicar waited there for some time. Finally I assumed I was mistaken, so I took it. Then the chap next to me had to reach out and tap the vicar on the arm before he went on because he had been missed out after all!
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
There was no opportunity to look lost the people behind us introduced themselves and we had a nice chat for about half an hour. The vicar came over to say hello properly, as did the childrens worker. Everyone was incredibly welcoming.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
It was nice coffee and biscuits.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 – I'd have given it a 10 if it had been a little more evangelical, which is my preferred style. However, it was great good music, nice atmosphere, welcoming congregation and a very beautiful building.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, definitely. I'm even beginning to feel better about taking that man's wafer now!
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The money on the floor!