St Mary's, Bramall Lane, Sheffield, England

St Mary's, Bramall Lane, Sheffield, England


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Mystery Worshipper: Lupin
Church: St Mary's
Location: Bramall Lane, Sheffield, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 12 November 2006, 10:30am

The building

Victorian gothic, rather traditional-looking on the outside (though the clockfaces on the tower are not uniform in style, which gives a very strange effect). Inside, a massive reordering has created a smallish worship area at one end, with the rest of the building a very attractive community centre. Cafe, conference rooms, hall, dance studio and various offices fill the church, and a chapel on the mezzanine floor looks out over the main worship area. But the decor is on the whole rather plain – vast expanses of empty white wall and a huge east window of unstained glass, through which the rather unprepossessing building behind is clearly visible. The church is light and bright and airy as a result, but not very inspiring. It was pleasing, therefore, to see sketches at the back for an attractive new east window, and to hear that pillar-hangings by an artist are shortly to be installed.

The church

As the vicar put it to me later, "We are trying to be a community church for the people who live around here." Among their many ministries are an alpha class, home groups, youth and women's groups, marriage counseling, a parents' group and a toy library. Clearly this is a church that does things rather than just talk about doing them.

The neighborhood

Sheffield is a major city in the north of England. It is thought that people inhabited the area even as far back as the last ice age. Once reknown for its steelworks, the city thrives today on technology and sports. The church is bang on Sheffield's inner ring road, close to the city centre, with Staples and the DWP on one side and Sheffield United Football Club on the other.

The cast

The Rev. Canon Julian Sullivan, incumbent priest, looking slightly lonely in his huge empty chancel.

What was the name of the service?

Remembrance Day service

How full was the building?

The relatively small worship space was empty enough for my hymnbook to sit in state on the chair next to me for most of the service. After the children came back in for communion, though, most of the 80-odd seats were occupied by people. The congregation was swelled by the presence of bemedaled ex-servicemen taking part in the act of remembrance.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

I was not quite punctual (of which more below), so an effusive welcome wasn't really what I was looking for as I sidled in during the first hymn. But a kindly sideslady left her seat to assist me at the hymnbook table, offering various pieces of newcomer's literature at the same time, and I was gently directed toward some empty seats.

Was your pew comfortable?

In place of pews were rows of smart and comfortable wooden chairs, with a few softer ones around the edges. I found it rather odd, though, that on several occasions we were invited to sit or kneel, despite the fact that the floor was hard-looking parquet, the legroom minimal, and hassocks completely absent despite the storage spaces cunningly integrated with the seats of the chairs. When given the choice, therefore, I opted to sit, as did everyone else.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Erm, couldn't quite tell you about that. I did leave home in plenty of time, but alas, Sheffield's inner ring road is most certainly the work of the beast! I walked over it and under it, through first one subway and then another, breathing in cigarette smoke and stale urine. I then walked down an alleyway, which I had mistaken for a shortcut, but instead ended up in a car park shared by some furniture retailers and an adult shoppe!. After further vexatious detours I eventually found myself staring my intended house of prayer in the face, across a portion of exceedingly busy road with a fence down the middle of it. So instead of offering my pre-service devotions inside the church, I spent five minutes on the other side of the road praying that the community might be divinely inspired to provide a footbridge.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

I was in time to hear the ending of "Make me a channel of your peace."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Hymns Old and New (Anglican Edition), The Holy Bible, New International Version, an in-house service communion booklet (also available in large print), and a Remembrance Day service sheet.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ, no choir or anything else.

Did anything distract you?

Leavened bread was used at communion, and it was so dry that I accidentally blew a small flake of the host across the chancel as I lifted it to my mouth. I spent the time before the chalice appeared debating whether or not I should try to retrieve it... and decided to forget about it. For the rest of the service I was rather more distracted by the complete lack of distractions in the decor.

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

It was a formal kind of service, and suitably solemn for Remembrance Day, with nothing really out of the ordinary. Middle-of-the-road, sort of evangelical Anglican, not the most interesting thing in the world. I would like to be present to see them worshipping in a different, more distinctive style, and I'd like to see their community centre at work during the week. I fancy that that is one of the most important aspects of their worship.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

13 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

4 – In the absence of a pulpit, Canon Sullivan preached his sermon from a lectern. But he seemed not to wish to place his notes upon it, preferring instead to hold them in his hands and bounce about a bit behind the lectern. I suppose everyone has to preach a topical sermon on Remembrance Day, but I thought the sermon sounded just a bit too much like a justification of one very nasty war in particular. I would rather have heard him spend the 13 minutes expounding on the gospel reading for the day (the Sermon on the Mount).

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Canon Sullivan began by retelling the story of the Unknown Soldier, rather at length, I thought, comparing this symbol of those who have gone to war to the unknown servant of Isaiah 53. Then he spoke of certain articles of the American Declaration of Independence as being "God's ambition for all," saying that sometimes we have to face the reality of standing up to those who would enslave us. Finally he said that as we remember the fallen, so should we remember the One who gave his life that we might live.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

To judge by appearances, people from many different backgrounds were present and involved as active members of the church. It was a much less self-possessed, middle-class seeming place than many Anglican churches of my acquaintance, and people seemed as a result to take the idea of living as a community much more seriously. I was impressed by the way people looked for ways to help each other, and ashamed at how long it took me to notice (for example) that my neighbour didn't have a hymnbook.

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

When I go to church I like all my senses to be stimulated – visual, auditory and olfactory. I therefore found the plainness of the church and liturgy somewhat hard to take – not to mention the rather plonky hymns sung with a heavy, flat Sheffield accent by a gentleman behind me. I knew most of the hymns by heart (my C of E primary school upbringing was good for something) and so didn't need to follow along in the hymnal, but people kept pointing out the pages for me anyway – quite vexing! Though it may be my own fault, at many points I didn't really feel like I was worshipping very much at all.

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

Nothing, for a good 10 minutes. I sat upon my chair trying to look befuddled and confused, but the lady sitting nearby was far too busy with her conversation to notice me. I was thirsty and so proceeded to the tea trolley, where I accidentally whacked someone with my bag. To my pleasant surprise she wheeled round to respond to my mumbled apologies with a smile and an enquiry after my health, but no further conversation was forthcoming. Then I minced around the back of the hall looking at the various prints and feeling all alone in the world, but perhaps I wasn't looking lost enough. And so I exchanged my "having an edifying experience" face for the vacant gaze of the lonely and abandoned – and lo and behold, a young man approached me to shake hands and converse. This continued for a short while, whereupon I decided that the vicar, standing at the door, was also far too engrossed in conversation to notice me if I tried to sneak past him on my way out. But not so! As I sidled past, Canon Sullivan interrupted his conversation, introduced himself and the others in his party, and restarted the discussion to include us all. A string of mighty peculiar coincidences in our biographies led him to call over more and more people to speak to me and I was several more times welcomed, introduced round, and encouraged to look about the building. Finally, when I had decided that I really had to leave, I was smiled at and called in to inspect the nativity costumes for next week's extravaganza in the town centre. It was amazing!

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Coffee was in granule form, and the lady serving it seemed to be having trouble getting hot water out of the relevant vessel, so I went for tea instead. The latter was somewhat substantial for my delicate southern palate, but it was hot, fairly traded (to judge by the literature distributed about the church) and accompanied by jaffa cakes. Jaffa cakes! O sacred food of my youth! Even if they didn't have these fancy new-fangled lemony ones in my day!

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

7 – Now, this is not my kind of liturgy, and I suspect that this church is somewhat more evangelically inclined than I feel comfortable with. But I would so like to be part of a community as caring and busy and welcoming as this.

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

Throughout most of the service I felt indifferent, but the warmth of the welcome I received afterwards was wonderful. That didn't just make me feel glad to be a Christian – it made me want to be a better one.

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

The variety of people and their kind, happy friendliness.

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