Mystery Worshipper: Liddell & Scott
Church: St Michael & All Angels
Location: Yeovil, Somerset, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 24 January 2016, 10:00am
A large late Victorian church built with no expense spared. It opened in 1897 and was the work of local architect J. Nicholson Johnson. It looks like a medieval church with touches of Art Nouveau. There is a large landmark tower that dominates the local area. Inside, one finds a short chancel, a five-bay nave and north aisle, and a three-bay Lady chapel on the south side. Traceried windows add to the medieval feel, along with the pointed arched doorway to the south.
After some difficulties a while back, the church is trying to re-engage with the community around it. They have a Bible study group and a parent and toddler group. They have said and sung eucharists on Sundays, with said eucharists on Tuesdays and Fridays. St Michael's and All Saints is noted for its Anglo-Catholic traditions.
Once known for its glove-making industry, Yeovil was the site of several aircraft and defence industries during World War II, which made it a target for bombing. Aircraft and defence industries still figure in the local economy, with helicopters and aircraft oxygen systems being built here. This is a huge parish, of over 19,000 population, containing areas of real poverty and deprivation. The entire neighbourhood around the church consists of rows and rows of smallish terrace houses and council housing, along with modern housing developments.
A retired priest identified only as Father Chris took the service, and a local Methodist minister preached. There was an exchange of pulpits with the priest in charge to mark the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
What was the name of the service?Sung Eucharist.
How full was the building?
Fairly sparse. The back six pews on each side were roped off. There were 38 people present (I counted them).
Did anyone welcome you personally?
A murmured "Good morning" as I took the books offered.
Was your pew comfortable?
A perfectly standard pitch-pine wooden pew. After all these years I have no feelings about them!
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Noisy with chatter, which was almost at times a hubbub, but unfortunately did not quite drown the recording that was being played (of which see more later). The hubbub was repeated when we got to the exchange of peace.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
'Our first hymn is number...'
What books did the congregation use during the service?
A locally printed order of service from Common Worship, a Redemptorist Publication Sunday leaflet of the readings, and Common Praise hymn book.
What musical instruments were played?
All the music was provided by, and the hymns accompanied by, CD recordings.
Did anything distract you?
The most distracting element was the use of recorded music. The music beforehand was suddenly faded out between cadences, and in the wrong key, which was disconcerting. The recorded hymn accompaniments were absolutely ghastly, unimaginatively played at a relentless pace and totally without rhythmic subtlety or interesting registration, and generally in slightly too high a key. No wonder the congregational singing was so poor. It was remarkable that there happened to be no fewer than three more-than-adequate organists in the congregation. Surely one of them could have been asked to play for the five hymns at least.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
On the low side of traditional Anglo-Catholic. There were servers, but they did very little during the service. There was a gospel procession, but no incense. Six candles on the altar, and seven (electric) sanctuary lamps.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – A workman-like collection of thoughts.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Jesus visiting the synagogue on the Sabbath. Jesus was returning to his home town, and the visiting preacher likened it to his own experience going back to his home chapel where he was a lad to preach. The illustration was apt and telling, and gave one food for thought.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The nearest approach to heaven is always receiving communion. However...
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The music chosen to accompany the communion was a recording of a Welsh male voice choir singing Cwm Rhondda. I was irresistibly reminded of "The Ballad of Barry and Freda (Let's Do It)" – not to be confused with the Cole Porter standard – generally regarded as the funniest of all of British comedienne and songwriter Victoria Wood's songs, which contains the immortal line 'I could handle half the tenors in a male voice choir.' It took me some time to regain my composure and feel able to make my communion.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I spoke to the visiting preacher. Then a lady came up, invited him to have a cup of coffee, and marched him off, totally ignoring me. I spoke to one of the other organists who was visiting in the congregation that morning, and we left together.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
As I was not invited to the feast, I went home and made my own, which was very acceptable, thank you.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
2 – I feel sorry about this low score, but for me the canned music is just too much (or little) to bear.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Despite the difficulties of recollection that this service posed, the opportunity to gather with other worshippers must always be a precious privilege.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
Half the tenors in a male voice choir.