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41: St Peter & St Paul, Olney, Buckinghamshire
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Mt Tabor Baptist
Mystery Worshipper: Etheldreda.
The church: St Peter & St Paul, Olney, Buckinghamshire.
Denomination: Church of England.
The building: Beautiful 14th-century village church with spire, built in the 'decorated' style in pale-coloured stone. The church has a large stained glass window at the east end, but many of the other windows are clear, making it light inside.
The neighbourhood: The church is at the edge of the village, on the banks of the River Great Ouse. The immediate area is normally quiet, but when I visited on Shrove Tuesday, the annual pancake race was being run, so the approach to the church was crowded with locals and day-trippers, television crews, police, stewards and St John's Ambulance volunteers, alongside assorted clergy, a bishop and at least one mayor.
The cast: The service was led by the rector (Rev Nigel Pond) and clergy from the local Roman Catholic, Baptist and United Reformed Churches, with Bishop Mike Hill preaching.
What was the name of the service?
'Shriving Service to follow the Annual Pancake Race.'

How full was the building?
Very full. About 500 people were in there, and late arrivals had to stand.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
I was welcomed with a friendly smile and a service sheet. When my son wanted the toilet, an attendant welcomed us there, too. In the loo there was an emergency supply of nappies and baby wipes, and in the church a large section full of toys and games for children.

Was your pew comfortable?
Old fashioned wooden pew, with no cushioning and a low back. However, we stood to sing quite often, so I didn't get stiff.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The service followed the pancake race, and people were in carnival mood. Apparently, on Shrove Tuesday 1445, a parishioner who was busy making pancakes almost missed the midday service at church. On hearing the church bell, she ran up the street and into church, still clutching her frying pan. The modern race starts shortly before noon when the 'pancake bell' rings, and local women, dressed in skirts, aprons and headscarves, run from the market square to the churchyard, tossing a pancake as they run. There was a lot of happy chatter inside and outside the church before the service.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
'Let us worship God and stand and sing...'

What books did the congregation use during the service?
A specially printed service sheet.

What musical instruments were played?
Organ. At the end of the service as the doors were opened, we heard the distinctive sound of bagpipes, too.

Did anything distract you?
Not especially, apart from the surprise of the bagpipes.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was an interesting mixture. There was a procession, the 'shriving' and the prizegiving, as well as readings and prayers. The hymns were all written by Olney's two hymnwriters, William Cowper and John Newton, and included 'God moves in a mysterious way', 'Amazing Grace' and 'Glorious things of thee are spoken'. The race winner was presented with her prize: a prayer book (and a kiss from the verger). I had been anticipating the shriving rather anxiously, as it sounded rather medieval, but it turned out to be a general confession and absolution. Everything was done with orderly enthusiasm and was a splendid example of English eccentricity.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
12 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9. He was witty and relevant.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
We find wholeness and fullness only when we acknowledge the spiritual aspect of our lives, and God can make something wonderful out of our unpromising ingredients.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Singing 'Amazing Grace'.

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

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Not a lot happened. There were lots of other visitors also hanging about, so eventually I joined the queue for a souvenir mug. At the church door, the rector shook my hand and thanked me for coming.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
No coffee in sight, but there were pancakes on sale in the church hall. They must have been good, as the people were queuing right down the street for them.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8. It was friendly, and even more important, it was child-friendly!.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, definitely.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The sight of the runners, assorted women wearing skirts, aprons and trainers, with very brightly coloured kerchiefs wrapped round their heads and still carrying their pancake pans, sitting alongside a robed choir in the chancel.
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