St Philip's, Tunbridge Wells (Exterior)

St Philip's, Tunbridge Wells, Kent, England


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Philip's
Location: Tunbridge Wells, Kent, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 7 May 2017, 10:00am

The building

Built in 1972, the church was originally called St James Church Centre, a "daughter church" of St James Church, part of the Parish of St James with St Philip, the largest parish in the diocese of Rochester. It had a priest-in charge, but gradually the congregation grew. In 2004, the parish was split to create two separate parishes: St James and St Philip The Evangelist. The outside, renovated in 2010-2011, looks like a typical 1970s building, but inside feels a lot newer, more spacious and light a nice space.

The church

I think its pretty special that a church can grow to a point where they split a parish! In addition, they seem to have a lot going on: a cybercafe, children's groups (in fact, there is a new group for school years 7-9 starting next week) and various musical productions. There is a new school nearby, and the vicar has been doing work to build a connection between the school and the church - pretty successfully so from what was said during the service. There are also events run for senior citizens and other local groups. There are two worship services each Sunday.

The neighborhood

Tunbridge Wells is a town in Kent, near to some beautiful countryside. There is nothing particular to say about it - just suburbia. Having Googled evangelical churches to find this one, I would say there is an atypically high concentration of them in Tunbridge Wells. The town also supports a Hillsong church.

The cast

The Revd Richard Thomas, vicar, led the service. (Their website, apparently not updated since 2016, says they are currently awaiting his licensing.) The preacher was a lady called Sarah Farnes, whom their website identifies as Deanery Synod Rep.

What was the name of the service?

All-Age Worship.

How full was the building?

The nave was about 75 per cent full. I estimated about 60 people, but I understand they often get around 80 people.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Yes Two people welcomed us and handed us the service sheet as we entered. We then sat at the back (allowing a quick escape if Little Miss Charles, age 2, got grumpy), and a church warden came over for a chat, as did the vicar. The people we spoke to were very friendly.

Was your pew comfortable?

It was a blue plastic chair and was very comfortable.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

As we entered, the band were practising some of the worship songs, and people around us greeted each other. It wasn't noisy, but certainly bubbly.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Good morning. Welcome to St Philip's. We'll start with a song. Please stand."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

There were blue Bibles, New International Version, for the reading, and a printed service sheet giving very little information. All the words were displayed on a screen at the front.

What musical instruments were played?

A band, who were really rather good: a Clavinova, guitar, bass guitar, clarinet, and a singer. Could have done with some percussion to complete the line-up but it worked very well anyway. The guitarist looked a little like a taller, younger version of the English Christian songwriter Matt Redman.

Did anything distract you?

I'm afraid a pattern is developing in my Mystery Worshipper reports in that the distraction was Little Miss Charles. Unfortunately, she probably distracted other people as well as me. She loves music and has a habit of shouting "Again!" when the songs finish! Other than that, the stained glass behind the altar had some sunlight coming through for a little while and was absolutely beautiful.

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

Very informal and relaxed: no liturgy, lots of worship songs and no traditional hymns. However, for that kind of church, I was surprised to read on the service sheet that they sometimes do a Book of Common Prayer service at their eight o'clock time.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

Hard to say exactly because I had to take Little Miss Charles out at the beginning so others could hear what was being said. Mrs Charles took reams of notes for me, but we missed the timing. I guess about 20 minutes.

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

8 – Sarah Farnes had two styles of preaching: a style for when she was reading pre-prepared notes, which was a little wooden, and a style for when she put the notes down and shared personal stories, which was much more conversational. Unlike many sermons, this was more of a personal testimony.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The reading was Matthew 28:16-20 (the Great Commission). She shared practical examples with us of what the Great Commission means to us in real life, to help us appreciate what Jesus actually wants us to do rather than just theology. She recounted a story of when she'd given a sleeping bag and a Bible to a homeless person, not realising she'd written her address inside. Some years later, the Bible was posted back to her along with a note from the man, saying he'd found a great church and had become a Christian. She also recounted how she had become a Christian.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

They sang pretty much all my favourite songs, finishing with "Cornerstone," which is a particular favourite of mine. The prayers were also very nicely done - each line of the Lord's Prayer was interspersed by intercessionary prayers, which was a very nice and thoughtful way of doing it.

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

It might have been nice to have a bit more detail on the service sheet. I wondered why they bothered to print it, as all it had was a message from the vicar (who gave plenty of messages during the service anyway), some prayer points (but we did lots of praying during the service anyway), and some notes about forthcoming events. Might have been nice to know what was going to happen, and when, during the service.

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

We wandered in for some coffee, to find that there was a lovely moist home-made cake available as well apple and pecan, which was delicious! The vicar then came over for a proper chat, as did another man called Anthony. Someone kindly brought a chocolate cupcake over for Little Miss Charles, but she wasn't allowed any more!

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Could be stronger, but this was more than compensated for by the cake.

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

9 – This was a lovely bustling, lively, friendly church. If I lived in the area I'd certainly consider it very carefully.

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

Yes, very much so.

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

The guitarist's resemblance to Matt Redman.

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