St Michael's, Stanwix, Carlisle, Cumbria

St Michael's, Stanwix, Carlisle, Cumbria, England


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Mystery Worshipper: Cherokee
Church: St Michael's
Location: Stanwix, Carlisle, Cumbria, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 17 September 2006, 9:30am

The building

Originally built in Old English style in 1841 and restored in 1892 after a fire in 1843. The church stands on the site of a cavalry fort on Hadrian's Wall, and has stained glass depictions of Roman soldiers. The decor is plain and the church is spacious.

The church

The church holds a barbecue each autumn for students at the adjoining art college. There is a Sunday club and creche. Food brought to the harvest festival goes to hostels for the homeless. There is outreach work in old people's homes, as well as treasure hunts, a harvest supper and coffee mornings.

The neighborhood

Stanwix is the site of the largest cavalry fort on Hadrian's Wall and the wall passes through it, albeit underground. It is a middle class residential suburb with well sought after homes. The older part is a conservation area.

The cast

The Rev Ben Phillips, the vicar, assisted by the Rev Ben King, the curate, who led the prayers.

What was the name of the service?

Matins with Victorian hymns. (It was part of a Victorian weekend being held in Stanwix.)

How full was the building?

About 100 people, over half full.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

We were the first to arrive and we were greeted by the sidesman, the vicar, and as people began to arrive they greeted us, too. A gentleman invited us to look at some old photos of Stanwix in Victorial times, which we did.

Was your pew comfortable?

No. It was hard, but they were in Victorian times, to concentrate the mind! My sweater kept sticking to the back of the pew.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

There was a lot of chatting as people arrived, mostly about the Victorian festival.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

In keeping with the Victorian theme, they were: "Ladies, gentlemen... and peasants, welcome!" in the vicar's booming tones. This was the first of many laughs during the service.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

A specially prepared souvenir order of service, and we were invited to refer to the Bible for the readings. It was the King James version, international edition.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ only.

Did anything distract you?

There was a cross suspended from the ceiling behind the altar and the lighting cast a shadow either side of it signifying the trinity. It was very impressive and I wondered how the lighting did it. Also, the church clock struck every 15 minutes, which disturbed my mood.

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

We used the Victorian liturgy throughout, and the worship was straight down the middle Church of England.The responses were spoken rather than sung. However, the vicar's extrovert personality shone through all the time.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

22 minutes. The vicar suggested that we have a three-hour Victorian one!

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

10 – He interspersed the serious and the funny with jokes and asides, keeping one's attention throughout. He had a strong voice and did not use, or need, a mike.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Heaven and hell. He wanted to keep it as close as possible to hell and brimstone! His text was the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, which he said Jesus was using to prophesy that he would rise from the dead and that people would not believe him. Sin leads to eternal damnation and if there is an afterlife we must not ignore it, as how we behave in this life determines our afterlife. We must repent and live for God and accept Jesus' sacrifice for us.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The specially chosen Wesleyan hymns. It was great to have a really good sing and you can't do better than Wesley! A group of young women along with the curate led the singing and their voices were heavenly. The aforementioned cross was ethereal.

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

I know we must praise as we wish, but I don't like to see people raising their hands as they sing. This was probably not what they did in Victorian times, anyway!

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

We didn't get a chance to feel lost! As we filed out the sidesman again shook our hands and as we were on the side where the curate was we had a nice chat with him, too. We were ushered across the churchyard to the church hall for coffee.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

It was hot and was served in proper cups and saucers. We couldn't determine its provenance. There were biscuits on each table and cakes near the servery. The room was bursting with people.

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


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

Definitely. The vicar spoke and the curate prayed with true conviction.

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

The vicar's presence. His personality filled the church and he smiled nearly all the time. He is clearly a man who can inspire others to follow their faith.

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