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77: United Reformed Church General Assembly, Southport, England
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General Assembly of the URC
Mystery Worshipper: Germaine.
The church: General Assembly of the United Reformed Church in the United Kingdom.
Denomination: United Reformed Church.
The building: The Assembly was held in the Floral Hall, Southport – a Victorian-style coastal town theatre situated next to a traditional park, full of sculpted mermaids and an artificial lake.
The neighbourhood: The URC was in town all week and the Methodist Conference had been there a week earlier. Next up, the posters crowed, was the comedian Bernard Manning.
The cast: Worship was led by Rev Peter Poulter, chaplain to this year's Moderator, Rev Peter McIntosh, who gave the sermon. Also involved were Mrs Wilma Frew, outgoing Moderator, and the cantor, Maggie McDonald. Peter was dressed in grey robes and a red stole covered in what one of the ecumenical visitors described as "exploding grenades".
What was the name of the service?
Opening Worship and Induction of Moderator of General Assembly.

How full was the building?
The theatre was near full, with around 700 people in the auditorium.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
We had already been in the building for three hours by the time of this worship and taken part in a communion service. Before communion started I was greeted by various moderators and stewards before being accosted by former acquaintances and old friends from other parts of the country.

Was your pew comfortable?
No. But some would say that is my own fault for sitting on the floor when there was a perfectly good chair available.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Incredibly noisy. Lots of other people were renewing acquiantances too. We shut up when someone stood at the front and banged a gavel.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Moderator, the General Assembly being met at the place Southport at the duly appointed time, in the month of July... will you constitute this Assembly in Prayer?"

What books did the congregation use during the service?
A specially prepared worship booklet.

What musical instruments were played?
No instruments. All singing was unaccompanied and led by the cantor by waving her arms about to demonstrate pitch.

Did anything distract you?
Peter McIntosh's mixed metaphors: "Afraid of being butterflies, preferring to remain caterpillars, breeding holy cows... and what a thought, caterpillars breeding holy cows..." Peter himself was distracted by his vestments: "I'd get my hankie out at this point, but I don't know how to do it in these clothes."

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Old hymn tunes but newer words, contemporary and thoughtful liturgy and Bible readings split in parts and read by all. Could have been described as 'fresh', except for the restrictive formalities of inductions and official welcomes.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
56 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
10. Peter McIntosh mixed humour, stern warnings and great vision together to provide an inspirational beginning to the week.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
This was a very big nut. To "get real" and understand that we must stay united, that the church must be the best it can possibly be, not being afraid to change or even die in order to create new life.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The sermon and the Moderator's first prayer: "May the words on our lips and the meditations in all our hearts, for God's sake, make a difference."

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The formal greeting of the many local, national and international visitors to the Assembly. Necessary, but it started to seem like one very long photo shoot.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I was mugged on leaving the theatre by a group of stewards hawking the Moderator's sermon for 50p a copy.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
More friends arrived to say hello. The bar we adjourned to was quite nice, thank you.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
Not possible, since it meets for just a few days each year. I would love to hear Peter McIntosh preach again.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
A line from the sermon: "How about rushing out and saying to a neighbouring church, 'Hello! We haven't spoken for 50 years. Would you like to DIE? We'll die with you.'" Peter McIntosh is a true 'holy fool'.
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