Compared with architectural treasures nearby, a tad boring; but the venue is by choice non-church. It is an utterly functional late-20th-century edifice (1987). Those who run the building (the parish council?) are keen to let people know that it is ‘for everyone’s use,’ and that users can hire not only the space but also some of the equipment, including items acquired for toddlers and youth groups. Other activities at the hall include classes (drawing, exercise, wine-tasting) and day-centre for the elderly. The hall is all ground-floor, well-lit, and acoustically well designed. Loos, however, might be a little cramped for anyone mobility-challenged.
The Filling Station is a widespread network of (quoting from their website) ‘monthly mid-week evening celebration meetings held in non-church venues … [including] high quality speakers and teachers, contemporary sung worship and powerful, accessible prayer ministry. Our meetings are designed to be overtly spiritual but presented in a manner that those outside the church would feel comfortable.’
Marsh Baldon is a tiny village (population 310) about five miles south of Oxford. It is one of ‘the Baldons’ – formerly including Toot Baldon, Little Baldon, Baldon St Lawrence, and Baldon – until local government decided there are just two Baldons, Marsh and Toot. It is tucked away off the A4074 main road to Dorchester. The village still features a gated entrance against livestock straying, but the gates have not been closed in decades. There is a rather fine 12th-century parish church, St Peter’s. The ‘modern’ village (housing dating back to 17th-18th centuries) lies around the outsized village green, which was reclaimed from marsh in medieval times – now owned by The Queen’s College Oxford and still used variously for cricket, hay-making, and overspill parking from the village pub.
The full cast list would be long: a team of stewards welcoming and serving refreshments; one ‘host’ ensuring that everything happened that was supposed to happen; one speaker giving the address (which was central to the evening) and fielding questions; one musician to accompany the singing; one projectionist attending to the projector; two intercessors ready and waiting if anyone wanted personal prayer; etc. Teaching and the worship-leading roles both were taken by men – whether by design or because that is how it happened to turn out, I could not tell.
What was the name of the service?‘Celebration’ Meeting.
How full was the building?
Very! Certainly enough to generate a celebration atmosphere for the worship, and to make it feel quite hot and stuffy by the end. Like at other Filling Station venues, the crowd was drawn from the surrounding area, focused on renewal, and coming from many different denominations – and none. It was an all-adult congregation, and everyone else seemed to know what they were doing, and were very focused on getting the most out of a meeting which, after all, happens only once a month.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes, many times over. People asking my name, where I’d come from, had I been there before, and gently engaging me in general conversation, but also giving me space just to ‘be.’
Was your pew comfortable?
No pews: plastic bucket-chairs – OK for most people for about an hour. At which point there was, thankfully, a comfort break. The hard seating and layout in rows facing screen and microphone at the front, each chair equipped with a piece of paper and a pen, made it feel quite formal.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Aromatic. My immediate impression on opening the glass front-doors: the smell of good coffee brewing. Inside the hall itself: mood lighting, soft music, on-screen a reproduction of Andrei Rublev’s famous icon of the Trinity, views through the windows to green pastureland and trees lit by the setting sun – all highly conducive to gentle meditation rather than wondering whether anyone else was going to turn up. The atmosphere abruptly changed at 7.30 when the main lights in the hall were switched on, and people started pouring in, greeting each other, getting their coffee, and finding seats. Experienced Filling Station worshippers, I noticed, had come equipped with something to lean on in order to use the pen and paper. Some started writing almost immediately. Which made me wonder whether I should be writing something too, but about what? Stewards were circulating with trays laden with toothsome cakes and little cheesy bakes, which some worshippers tucked into with enthusiasm, while others (keeping Lent?) held back. All that went on for some 20 minutes, until the room was called to order.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
‘Welcome, everyone!’ – Not quite as cheesy as it sounds, as it was followed by an explanation of how we were there not just to celebrate faith, but also to allow it to be challenged: ‘We need your questions!’ Which sort of explained what the writing was all about, but how did people know in advance what the topic was going to be? Maybe there was some on-line stream of information I had not tapped into.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
None. No printed order of service, no written agenda. Lyrics for worship songs were projected onto the big screen in front.
What musical instruments were played?
Did anything distract you?
I occasionally wondered if the gentleman who spent much of the time stationed against the back wall was keeping an eye on us, or whether he was standing for the sake of his back, or whether he had got up and moved because something someone said had touched a raw nerve.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Traditional evangelical praise. No more than one arm held in the air, palm outwards. Medleys of old-favourite worship songs plus the odd hymn. Only afterwards did it cross my mind that there had been no spoken prayers at all, no formal Bible study, no time set aside for silence or contemplation.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
38 minutes, including three minutes of preparatory remarks.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 — Clear organization and presentation of material; intelligent use of slides and video clips. All the personal examples seemed to be drawn from the speaker’s own life.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
‘Why Suffering?’ Mostly incisive critique of contemporary atheist approaches to the subject – more like a lecture than a conventional sermon – but also showing why it is important for anyone who wants to be human to hold this ‘hardest question of all’ in mind. (I hope I am not over-interpreting the speaker.) I sensed that towards the end of the talk, the speaker was not quite carrying the room with him as he gently invited listeners to ‘trust God with our brokenness’ and consider how ‘suffering is not the end of the story.’
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Praising the Lord for the beauty of creation against a backdrop of the real thing – while remaining well aware of the other side of the coin: the ugliness and anguish in our imperfect world, the experience of which God in Christ Jesus shares to the full.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Questions and answers in the second half. The speaker went on and on, with no end in sight, trying to address intellectually the questions that had been written down and handed in – when really most of the points seemed to me to be calling out to be prayed through. This was the point at which the formal set-up was not so helpful. For effective interchange at this stage, I felt that we could really have done with some squishy armchairs arranged in circles, but that wouldn’t have been awfully practical. I felt a bit ‘dragooned’ at times: it was a culture shock to hear the congregation being ordered to ‘stand’ for the opening worship, when in my home church it would be have been ‘Let’s stand’ or ‘Do stand, if you’re able.’
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
N/A — This is a back-to-front service by standards of conventional church: the fellowshipping comes first, not last.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
N/A — We’d drunk up before worship even began!
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
6 — I can’t say as the service left me feeling full, but then it is probably only intended as a top-up to regular worship elsewhere, or – for the unchurched – as an entry point. This from their national website: ‘Our meetings are designed to be … short, sharp and focused in character.’
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Not entirely. Good coffee, good food, thoughtful presentation – yes, those go well towards creating a church event to which it would not be an embarrassment to take an unchurched friend. A non-church setting is obviously going to be good for anyone who, for whatever reason, feels instantly freaked out by the obvious social codes of vestments, liturgy, and so on. But – these may be horses-for-courses things – did it have to be quite so relentlessly cerebral whenever we were not drinking coffee or singing? And I’d have better connected with the question put to us – whether we ‘trust God with our brokenness’ – if the service had afforded an opportunity to express any brokenness.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
Somehow managing to muddle through one of the last songs. The words were not in the slide-system memory bank, so the congregation had either to improvise or sing from their own memory. I was still singing (in my heart) all the way home. Which I’d have been able to do better if I hadn’t also had to concentrate on the driving task.