Mystery Worshipper: China
Church: Welcoming a Circuit Superintendent
Location: East Ham, London
Date of visit: Sunday, 31 August 2014, 6:00pm
The event was held at the Pilgrims Way Congregational and Methodist Church, East Ham. Built shortly after the second World War, the building is functional and utilitarian in style. London brickwork is broken by the name of the church in white plastic lettering on the side facing Pilgrims Way. A full bank of glass windows on one side provides good light into the worship area. A banner with the words "Holy Spirit" in a number of languages is hung on a wooden sounding board at the front of the worship area which, otherwise, is pleasantly simple in design.
The church notice board gives information about a plethora of groups who meet on the premises, from a full-time children's day nursery to several karate groups, from uniformed young peoples groups to dancing classes and from other Christian church congregations to a yoga group. There also are one or two activities more obviously associated with the congregation: a coffee morning with a nearly new sale, an afternoon fellowship meeting, a monthly coffee, cake and curry morning (I was told that this attracts a good number of local people) and a prayer meeting.
East Ham, whose name derives from an Old English word meaning "dry area between marshlands", is part of the London borough of Newham, one of the most diverse boroughs in the United Kingdom; it also is one of the economically poorest. Some small pockets of the borough are in the process of gentrification as reflected in the price of houses. However, the overwhelming impression as one walks along East Ham High Street is of a rather wobbly community in transition, with shops in the process of changing hands. Opposite the church is a large branch of an international budget clothing outlet, although in the whole area I found only a few well-known, long-established retail names.
The Revd Nicola Vidamour, newly appointed Methodist superintendent minister; the Revd Gareth Powell, assistant secretary of the Methodist Conference; Jill Baker, local preacher in the Thames Valley Methodist Circuit; Joan Samuel, senior circuit steward; and the Revd Inez Reid, minister of Stratford Methodist Church; as well as numerous others (see below).
What was the name of the service?A service to welcome the Revd Nicola Vidamour as circuit superintendent and celebrate 25 years since she started preaching.
How full was the building?
Full to overflowing: at least 200 in the main auditorium, the balcony and an overflow area. About a third of this number apparently were members of Pilgrims Way Church, one of the Revd Vidamour's two home congregations. But as this was a circuit service to welcome the new superintendent, there were members of the seven Newham Methodist congregations present as well. The congregation were very mixed in age, above the age of 30 with a smattering of young adults and children. It became clear that there was a large number of family and friends of those officiating as well as past members of the Methodist Newham Circuit. One person remarked to me that it was a bit like a reunion of students from Queens Theological College, Birmingham.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Many people seemed to be welcoming each other and I felt well included.
Was your pew comfortable?
A nice padded seat.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Politely expectant with lots of quiet chatter.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
Immediately prior to the commencement of the service, a church steward named Dorothy gave "A very warm welcome on this very special occasion, especially to those who have never been to this church." The Revd Gareth Powell began the service proper with the words: "Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The words of the hymns were projected onto the two large screens; the words and format of the service of holy communion were provided in the Methodist Worship Book, which was handed to people as we arrived. Everyone also was given a nicely printed order of service, which helpfully guided us through the proceedings and provided brief biographical details of the main players and the names of others taking a representative role in the service.
What musical instruments were played?
The accompanist, Paul, was brought in from retirement for the occasion: he switched between piano and electronic keyboard, seeming most comfortable with the former. He obviously was intent on controlling any wayward slow singers but did not always succeed, apart from the last verse of the last hymn where he made us sing much slower and then repeat the "Hallelujahs."
Did anything distract you?
Suddenly, during a period of silence, a dazzling security light was activated outside the building and the brilliance shone through the window directly behind Nicola's head, producing what seemed like an amazing coloured halo.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was rather sedate yet relaxed, with occasional laughter and applause. I suppose I would call it "Methodism on the high side" (personified in the assistant secretary to the Conference) with a nod to the low. The congregational singing was especially strong and uplifting as befits a Methodist service. However, the customary "welcome" part was very different from anything I have experienced before (see below).
Exactly how long was the sermon?
19 minutes, although it was so engaging that I really did lose track of the time. I base the 19 minutes on having listened to a recording afterwards.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 – Jill Baker, local preacher in the Thames Valley Methodist Circuit, was enthusiastic and clear, referring to her notes but not bound by them. She was a pleasure to watch as well as to listen to.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
She began with a couple of anecdotes about having misread her map in getting to East Ham and how she and Nicola often met around food and eating. This easily led into two Bible stories from Exodus and Matthew, both of which ended with eating. Miriam fed Moses, and the hungry crowd in Matthew's gospel was fed. Miriam was a sign of hope to the Israelites wandering in the desert. In that sense she was the first Methodist superintendent - never underestimate any woman! [This comment provoked much laughter.] At the right moment, Miriam stepped forward, taking the initiative. In Matthew's story, Jesus was moved by compassion for the crowd and met their needs. Rather than listening to his disciples, who wanted to send the people away, Jesus said, "You feed them!" Far be it from me to be sexist in the pulpit [she said], but would any of us ask 12 men to put on a meal for 5000? [Again much laughter.] Methodism would be transformed if we all acted in the same way. The business of the Kingdom of God is about transforming grief into celebration, transforming hunger into satisfaction, transforming nothing into abundance. Let us make space for these things to happen.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
There was a long period of welcome for the Revd Nicola Vidamour. This consisted of a number of presentations that were imaginative, creative and powerful messages of support and challenge. The outgoing superintendent presented the key to the Circuit safe and a copy of the constitution, practice and discipline of the Methodist Church. A Circuit steward presented a mobile phone to aid communication. Nicola's young nephews, James and Benjamin, presented a toy Tigger, enjoining her to visit them and take them out for trips. A local preacher, Sanya, presented a Bible. A young person, Chidinma, presented a jug of water to remind Nicola to baptise and welcome people of all ages. And so on. Later in the service, Nicola presented a singing bowl to the Circuit, which she said she plans to use at the start of all Circuit business meetings; the bowl makes a surprisingly beautiful high-pitched sound when rubbed. The choir sang "Give us faith, Lord" by Dan Schutte. The congregation obviously agreed with me that they sang very well, as there was hearty applause. So there was plenty to point heavenwards.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
This may seem sacrilegious to some, but the mechanics of distributing the elements during holy communion could have done with some major improvement. It seemed to go on forever (it was actually 19 minutes). It appeared to me that this was due to there being too few people officiating. Also, I would have liked the Revd Gareth Powell to have led proceedings with a little less austerity. Finally, my fundamentalist background was a bit challenged by the number of personal references in the service to Nicola's experiences and interests, but I suppose the service had to be mostly about her.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
It was a joy to find a number of friends from years ago. My impression was that many similar reunions were taking place.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Who needed coffee with everything else that was on offer? Ghanaian doughnuts, pancakes, achomo (a West African deep-fried snack, similar to biscuits), peanuts, crisps and plantain a veritable feast was laid on.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 – If I were looking for a church and lived in the area this would be it. Although it should be remembered that this event did not represent Pilgrims Way Church alone.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
If I were wishing to return to faith, this service might have set me on that road back.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The presentations and the choir.