Town Church St Helier (Exterior)

The Town Church, St Helier, Jersey, Channel Islands


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: The Town Church
Location: St Helier, Jersey, Channel Islands
Date of visit: Sunday, 1 May 2011, 10:00am

The building

The Town Church, officially St Helier's Parish Church, is centrally located in the town that bears its name and is not far from the harbour. There's been a church on the present site for over a thousand years. The quire and part of the nave retain 10th or 11th century Norman elements. The transepts and tower date from the 13th century, and the south aisle and chapel from the century following. The church was extensively reordered during the Reformation. The English Civil War and the Battle of Jersey brought heavy damage, and the building had become so dilapidated by the early 19th century that it was in danger of being demolished. Instead, extensive restoration took place. Restoration is again under way today, and I could not see much of the church inside as it is being renovated. The service I attended was in the south aisle, which is also the Lady chapel. Though only in temporary use for regular worship, the area has been prepared with some care, including an electronic organ of good quality and a children's worship area at the back. It was brightly lit.

The church

Among their ministries is a Business and Professional group that addresses issues of faith in the workplace. They support Insight, an ecumenical gathering where (quoting from their website) one can "meet new people over a drink and doughnut" and share "insights into the most important questions in life."

The neighborhood

About one-third the population of Jersey live in St Helier, the island's capital. The town is named after Helier, a 6th century ascetic hermit martyred on the island. Legend has it that after Helier was beheaded, he picked up his head and walked off along the beach. When his body was later found still clutching the head, it was placed in a boat and set adrift. The boat made its way to Normandy, where a spring arose from the spot at which the boat landed. Water from the spring is said to have effected miracle cures and still attracts pilgrims to this day. The area around the Town Church is mostly shops and office buildings, with some hotels and residential properties.

The cast

The Revd Canon Tim Neill, dean's vicar, led the service. Canon Neill was assisted by an unnamed woman who administered the chalice at communion. The intercessor was listed as one Jill Bartholomew, but inasmuch as a gentleman led the prayers "for the island, the church and the world", this must have been a misprint.

What was the name of the service?

Holy Communion.

How full was the building?

About half full. Most worshippers live in Jersey but they are obviously used to welcoming visitors, as tourism is one of the major industries.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

A regular worshipper greeted me outside and explained about the church's renovation and which door to use to get inside. She asked where I was from. Inside, a sidesperson greeted me and handed me the books. Everyone smiled!

Was your pew comfortable?

Temporary chairs, obviously new. Fairly comfortable, but no provision for kneeling (and there wasn't really room between rows to kneel).

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Fairly quiet, but people greeted each other as they entered.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Good morning, everyone. Welcome to the Town Church, and a special welcome to any visitors."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Mission Praise, plus a sheet with the full order of service and a weekly news sheet.

What musical instruments were played?


Did anything distract you?

A small child in the family area at the back was occasionally noisy, but not too distracting. No one seemed to have a problem with this noise. The flowers round the Easter candle were beautiful.

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

An interesting mixture. The service was fairly traditional Anglican, and not in the most recent fashion of service. For instance, the creed began, "I believe" rather than "We believe," which seemed a little old-fashioned. However, the celebrant was informal and made occasional humourous asides in the sermon. As he gave the final blessing, he sounded more like a revivalist preacher.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

12 minutes.

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

7 – Informal, with occasional lighter comments, but sincere.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Based on the day's gospel (John 21 – the risen Jesus appears to the disciples, who harvest a miraculous catch of fish). He explained that "the disciple whom Jesus loved" was not Jesus' favourite disciple, but one who knew that Jesus loved him personally. Peter was not so sure of being loved, because he had betrayed Jesus. He may have been confused, expecting Jesus to rebuke him rather than talk about love. Many Christians also find it hard to grasp that God does not just love everybody in an abstract way, but actually loves each of us individually. Peter was caught up in the magic of being with Jesus, as Jesus had to ask him three times: "Do you love me?" Jesus starts out asking if Peter loves him as a friend, then keeps asking until Peter understands the boundless love he's really talking about. This is the question God also asks of us, and on this hangs the judgement of our souls. The sermon ended with extended invocational prayer for Jesus' love to transform lives.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The intercessions were clearly heartfelt and thoughtful, giving thanks among other things for the Christian example of the Royal Wedding (two days previously) which had drawn the eyes of many around the world to a church service, and to the sanctity of marriage. Also the enthusiastic hymn singing. The choir led this skillfully but the congregation joined in heartily as well.

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

I cannot think of anything. Nothing grated. If forced, I might mention the fact that I could not see much of the church because of the renovations in progress.

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

This is not a church where looking lost is possible. The service sheet set the tone. It gave the clear invitation: "We would love to meet you after the service in the church house for a cup of tea or coffee." Two people explained the way to church house.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Very good. Real coffee, apparently a blend chosen with some care from among fair trade options they have tried. And some very classy biscuits!

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

8 – The welcome, and the breadth of activities listed in the weekly news sheet, make it clear this is an active church with plenty of lay involvement. I could feel at home here.

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


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

The friendly welcome. Everyone was very welcoming, with lots of chat at coffee afterwards. When I was ready to leave, the regulars were showing no signs of departing. They seem to enjoy each others' company.

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