Wesley College, Bristol, England

Wesley College, Bristol, England


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Wesley College
Location: Bristol, England
Date of visit: Thursday, 8 July 2010, 6:00pm

The building

A block of red brick buildings with teaching rooms. The service was held in the Headingley Building, located next to the main college building. It looks more like a chapel than a lecture hall. The seats are mobile but the space was limited because parts of the hall were screened off by portable partitions. The only decoration to alleviate the brick walls was a map of the world and some prayer stations around three sides set up for us to visit during the intercessions.

The church

As the successor to Didsbury College, Manchester (founded in 1842), it is the oldest theological college in world Methodism and has trained students for ordained and lay ministry throughout the world and has many archives and a superb library. Tragically, the Methodist Conference, the week before I was there, had voted to close it. It is claimed that the college is too expensive, though many believe that is a smokescreen for internal church politics.

The neighborhood

The college, which also houses a centre for Network Counselling, stands in several acres of peaceful land near Henbury, which used to be a small village on the outskirts of Bristol but is now a large and difficult council housing estate.

The cast

The celebrant was the principal, the Revd Dr Jonathan Pye. The preacher was chair of district, the Revd Ward Jones.

What was the name of the service?

Leavers' Service

How full was the building?

Fairly full, about 70 people.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Yes. I was invited to sign the farewell cards of the two students whom I knew personally.

Was your pew comfortable?

Yes – a padded chair.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

People greeted one another but not too noisily.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Good evening and a very warm welcome to our Leavers' Service."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

A specially printed booklet with a variety of prayers from New Zealand, Scotland and Wales, which reflected the international contribution this college has made.

What musical instruments were played?

Three guitars.

Did anything distract you?

The heat. It was a sweltering July evening.

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

High-church Methodist. The celebrant wore cassock-alb and stole, genuflected to the consecrated elements, kissed the altar, and used oil to anoint the leavers. The preacher wore a very distinctive purple gown with crosses and a built-in stole. The leavers stood behind the communion table in a semicircle as the principal and a lady whom I could not identify anointed them. This was done fairly quietly and we could not hear the words that were spoken, but it seems that each leaver was given some personal words of encouragement, judging by the smiles on their faces.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

13 minutes.

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

7 – I was not totally alert during the sermon because of the heat but he did tell a joke about how many Methodists it takes to change a lightbulb, which was only vaguely relevant to his theme.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The Good Samaritan stood alongside the wounded to find out his needs. He was concerned with the spirit of love, not with rules and regulations. In your ministry, make space for people and avoid too many meetings.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

An impassioned speech by one of the leavers about the hypocrisy of a church that champions social justice issues, yet conspires and does deals behind closed doors prior to democratic debate.

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

Listening to two students who were returning to South Korea and remembering that this international link will be lost forever.

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

One of the leavers thanked me for coming, and then I was introduced to the principal.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There was a choice of tea or coffee. Being English, I chose the tea. I was so thirsty that I drank it very quickly without noticing its quality.

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

8 – I am not sure that it is used much on Sundays, as the students are out on preaching placements. But I would enjoy its liberal theology and social justice emphasis, together with its inclusive language liturgy.

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 amazing purple gown worn by the chair of district.

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