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31: Heath Evangelical Church, Cardiff, Wales
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Heath Evangelical
Mystery Worshipper: Nick O'Demus.
The church: Heath Evangelical Church, Cardiff.
Denomination: Independent evangelical. The church broke away from the Welsh Presbyterian Church in the 1970s, a move led by the pastor, the renowned Rev. Vernon Higham.
The building: Built in 1906, this is a preaching barn with a classic non-conformist interior. The angled pews and the balcony (which hugs three walls) all face an impressive wooden pulpit, which is the focal point of the building. The balcony is supported by metal pillars, painted deep red; otherwise, everything is in glowing, polished wood.
The neighbourhood: Next door is Maskrey's – a small department store. The church suffered a major split in the 1980s over a disagreement within the congregation over whether or not to buy the store to house its expanding work. A significant number of the congregation walked out, never to return.
The cast: Rev. Vernon Higham was preaching away. In his place we had the silver-haired and kindly Rev. Derek Swan, a member of the church who has an itinerant ministry.
What was the name of the service?
11.00am morning service.

How full was the building?
Approx. 90 per cent full – about 600 people. I sat high up in the balcony, marvelling at the large number of conservatively dressed young people sitting around me, looking alarmingly keen and committed and more than a little like clones.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
I almost succeeded in sneaking past the man in the suit at the door who was talking to someone else. But he called me back as I was making for the stairs and said hello with a big, Welsh, welcoming smile.

Was your pew comfortable?
Desperately uncomfortable. My knees were jammed against the hymnbook shelf of the pew in front. After an hour, practically the whole of my lower body was numb. I noticed lots of people leaning forward during the sermon, as if in rapt attention, and realized that they were probably just trying to ease the torture.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Friendly, with people chatting. In the final seconds before the start of the service, the organ played, sotto voce, the tune to the chorus, 'Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus', and a great hush descended.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
'Let us join together in singing hymn number 11.'

What books did the congregation use during the service?
'Christian Hymns', the hymnbook of the fearsomely conservative Evangelical Movement of Wales.

What musical instruments were played?
Organ only. I wonder if any other musical instrument has ever been heard in this church?

Did anything distract you?
The children's talk. Rev. Swan held up a medical thermometer and asked the children what it was. There was no response, as he was holding up the tiny object in the pulpit, 10 feet above the children's heads. 'Mummy makes you open your mouth and say "ahhhh",' he prompted. 'A thermometer?' ventured a child. Now Rev. Swan held up a smaller thermometer and asked: 'And where does this go?' The fixed smiles on the faces of the adults showed that they were thinking the same unthinkable answer as me... The correct answer (of course): 'In the aquarium!'

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Stiff upper lip. Despite a sermon on revival and a rousing final hymn, there was no outbreak of spontaneity. We stood when we were told; sat, bowed our heads, sang, gave money. We were very well behaved.

Heath Evangelical

Exactly how long was the sermon?
39 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
6. Rev. Swan is a very fine preacher of the non-conformist school. He was beautifully clear, handled scripture creatively and yet with respect, and he applied it to what is happening in the world today. He probably preaches most Sundays in the year, and yet seemed as fresh as if this was his first Sunday. Lots of people took notes. I counted no less than 32 pens wagging over notebooks in the balcony.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Are we turning the world upside down? Are we regarded as troublemakers? Do people complain about us? Do we cause riots, as the first Christians did? Are we making the clubs close, the drink industry collapse, the lottery crumble? The Devil doesn't worry about our services even though we sing our heads off, because it doesn't affect his work in the world.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Singing that final hymn, which made my molecules dance: 'O breath of life come sweeping through us...'

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
I'm sure that pews very similar to this one must play some part in the daily routine of Hell.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I talked with Muriel. She had turned to talk to me when I first sat down beside her, and we had a chat at the end. I asked her why, in a service about revival, there weren't any obvious displays of feeling by the congregation. 'It's the danger of getting swept along by emotion,' she said.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Coffee is confined to the evening service.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
2. It was the young clones who put me off most. I couldn't help feeling that joining this church must involve some type of surgical procedure.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, because of the fine sermon and the spine-tingling hymns.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
My aching legs.

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