St Nicholas, Newcastle upon Tyne, England

St Nicholas, Gosforth, Newcastle upon Tyne, England


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Mystery Worshipper: Caspar
Church: St Nicholas, Gosforth
Location: Newcastle upon Tyne, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 26 August 2007, 10:00am

The building

The parish is believed to date from Saxon times; most of the names of the clergy are known as far back as 1153. The tower and west end of the present church were erected in 1799. The building is in the late Georgian style and has been altered and adapted numerous times throughout the years. It is quite plain looking from the outside – and from the inside when you're used to a very richly decorated church as I am. But none the worse for that – there are some beautiful windows, including what looked like modern stained glass in the chapel. And a domed wood lined ceiling.

The church

They describe themselves as an open, inclusive and affirming community. Sunday services include morning prayer (1662 version) plus two eucharistic celebrations (one using the 1662 Prayer Book) and choral evensong. Once each month they hold an additional communion service without sermon. Either morning/evening prayer is read or the eucharist is celebrated each weekday. Their ministries include youth groups, ladies' and men's groups, a mothers' union, three choirs and Sunday school.

The neighborhood

Newcastle is a city in northern England known since the 1500s as a major coal producer. The expression "carrying coals to Newcastle," meaning engaging in a futile activity, was first recorded in 1538. A major industrial centre in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Newcastle today is primarily known as a city of technical innovation, leisure and culture. Gosforth, to the north of the city centre, is a fairly average middle class leafy suburb. There is a very small amount of council housing and old people's bungalows nearby, as well as some postgrad and family student accommodations.

The cast

The celebrant and preacher was the Revd Philip Cunningham, vicar of St Nicholas and the area dean. I wasn't able to find out the names of the deacon or servers.

What was the name of the service?

Parish Eucharist with Baptism.

How full was the building?

Pretty full, especially once the baptismal party arrived. It being August Bank Holiday weekend, many of the regulars may have been away.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Not really. I was given a candle and cardboard disc to hold it in, but had to interrupt the sidesman's conversation with one of his mates to ask for a service sheet and hymnbook.

Was your pew comfortable?

Yes, it was comfortable – much more than what I'm used to! Plenty of leg room and a nice red woolly runner on the seat.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Active. There were a lot of children, and as the baptismal party arrived they were fussed over as to where to sit, etc. Quite a few people were visiting quietly with each other. Despite all of this, however, the church itself has a peaceful and welcoming presence.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Good morning, everyone." The vicar made a special mention of the baptismal party and the little girl to be baptised, and asked us to pray quietly before the service began with the opening hymn.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Common Praise hymnbook, a service sheet for holy communion in ordinary time, and a separate baptism service sheet. Not everyone got a baptism sheet – I gave mine to a family who looked a bit lost at that point.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ. Very well played too. The pipe chamber in the southeast corner of the church was added in 1884 to accommodate a small two manual organ that was replaced in 1994 by a shiny new instrument, of which the congregation is justifiably proud.

Did anything distract you?

There was quite a lot of noise from the children in the service - but I'm used to that and I like to see and hear kids in church. But they did distract me from concentrating on getting an impression of the physical aspects of the church.

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

It seemed pretty solid middle-of-the-road Anglican to me, though I don't have a lot of experience with different styles. There were a few things that were different from where I normally worship. For example, a bell was rung at the elevation of the host, and we had candles for the baptism. There was no choir and the responses were said – I wondered if that could be written off to it being summer holiday time.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

15 minutes.

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

9 – Vicar Cunningham had a forceful style and certainly made me listen. I usually drift off during the sermon to thoughts about lunch, work, etc. Deplorable, I know – but there was no drifting off today!

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

No one can deny that our inner cities are burdened by crime. God liberates us by his love and his law, by the gift of the Holy Spirit through baptism, and by the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus. But we deny that liberation by sinking into the bonds of sin, which lead to crime. And middle class England is also guilty of hypocrisy for doing exactly that but concealing it and failing to acknowledge it. It's no good just preaching sermons about the reductionist secularism of our society and the evil that results. We must take up what we are given through baptism and go out and preach the gospel so that others may also be liberated.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The baptism – we were all invited to come near the font and it felt genuinely like welcoming a new member of the family.

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

There was some rather dodgy – and very loud – singing going on behind me.

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

People were taking ages to get out of church – lots of chat going on. I tried my best to look lost but no one spoke to me – they were all busy catching up with friends. But when I got outside, the vicar welcomed me very warmly. And later on at coffee, someone made a point of talking to me.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

The coffee was poured into proper mugs from a teapot with milk already added. It was OK. The church seems committed to fair trade so I expect it was. A fresh plate of biscuits was put out just as I got there, but I was on my best visitor behaviour so I didn't take a chocolate one.

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

7 – I do live in the parish, and it seemed like a church that I would probably be very happy with. But I'm quite settled in another church, at least for the time being!

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

Yes, the baptism especially made it feel very welcoming and inclusive.

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

The sermon that kept my mind from wandering.

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