The church has been meeting in their current building since 1935. It's a fairly indistinct building, easily missed, sat next to a pub. As you go inside, you are immediately "funneled" off to one side and up some narrow dark stairs before emerging into the main hall, where the first thing that strikes you is the lime green colour of the walls. There were a few half-wilted flowers on the windowsills. But for a very hot day in the height of summer, it was well aerated.
The church describes itself as being (quoting from their website) "Reformed, Independent Particular/Calvinistic Baptists, Protestants and Evangelical." Founded in 1807, it claims to be the oldest Free Church in Westminster. As well as the two Sunday services, they hold a midweek service on Wednesday lunchtimes and hand out tracts on the local high street on Saturdays.
Westminster is the home of the UK government, with various departments dotted around, as well as the Houses of Parliament. During the week, the place is bustling with the staff from local businesses as well as civil servants. At the weekends, the area is a lot quieter and is dominated by tourists. There's a rich religious heritage in the area, with the Anglican Westminster Abbey, the Catholic cathedral, and Methodist Central Hall all a few minutes' walk away.
The service was led by a visiting minister, Fred Ringsworth, as Pastor Jonathan was away. The notices were given by "Mike."
What was the name of the service?The Lord's Day Service.
How full was the building?
There were about 25 people present, which I understand was a good turnout. This made the place about one-third full.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
As I came in, an elderly gentleman asked me, "Are you the American?" to which I said that I wasn't. He shuffled off somewhere else while I picked up a Bible from a table. A couple of people said hello, but there didn't seem to a formal welcome.
Was your pew comfortable?
Not in the least. We had short rows of wooden chairs, and by the end of the sermon I couldn't wait to stand and jiggle about a bit.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Deathly. Hardly anyone spoke for ages; we just sat in silence. It was broken only when the American did turn up and was introduced to another American couple, whereupon they chatted for a bit, audible to all within the church.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Brethren, all the clocks seem to be a different time."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
We read from the King James translation of the Bible and we had battered old nameless hymnbook in the back of each seat.
What musical instruments were played?
Just a simple electric organ. No pipes.
Did anything distract you?
My own hay fever was a little distracting, though what really caught my attention was that Fred made reference to the "inherent" word of God (a phrase also found on the website). I couldn't help but think he meant "inerrant" but simply didn't know what the right word to use was. Not knowing what words meant became a running theme (see below).
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
This was at the dour end of the Baptist movement. The service was based around a hymn sandwich, though the organ rather drowned out any singing. Fred was dressed in what might be dubbed "classic Baptist vestments" of a nice suit, buttoned-up, with a neat tie and pocket handkerchief.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
1 – Fred was quite an aggressive preacher. He may have been trying to make eye contact, but he ended up staring at people, one at a time. Even so, the low mark is more for the content than the style.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Based on Job 9:2 ("How should man be just before God?"), it was about "How do you know you are right with God?" which we were told is the most important question anyone can ask. The great Puritans like Jonathan Edwards were constantly asking questions, and so must we. Fred went on to reaffirm his condemnation of humanism and socialism, and he also condemned the doctrines of purgatory and annihilationism, and the prosperity gospel. He declared that the UK was the abortion capital of Europe. He also stated that no matter who is in charge politically, we are more illiterate than we used to be and that there is no point in engaging in politics, as being right with God is more important than anything else. Liberation theology, concern about poverty or third world debt are things that distract people from the gospel and are thus to be shunned.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Singing "When I survey the wondrous cross" it's a great hymn that I'd not sung for a while.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Most of it. Especially the prayers. Just before starting to pray, Fred stated that praying in public was harder than preaching in public and that prayers must never be used as a form of preaching or to push any kind of agenda. He then proceeded to give an eight minute prayer that seemed to push an awful lot of agendas. Amongst his points were that we (the British) were once a Bible-believing nation, full of great expositors, but are now a byword for apostacy. He denounced unnamed bishops who have abandoned God's infallible Word, our "so-called" multifaith society, humanism and socialism. But I'm not convinced he understood any of the words he was using.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
A couple of people said hello and also asked if I was American. I noticed a table covered with small tracts (half of which seemed to be defending a "King James only" approach to the Bible) and a newspaper called the British Church Newspaper that bore a headline "Muslims Worship Mary."
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
They only had black coffee on offer; no tea or milk were available. It was served in some nice purple mugs. It was watery and tasteless.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
0 – This was a case of loveless fundamentalism; not my cup of tea at all. It's the kind of thing that gives evangelicals a bad name.
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 desire to leave there as quickly as possible and never go back.