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255: St Mary the Virgin, Kirkby Lonsdale, Cumbria, England
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St Mary the Virgin, Kirkby Lonsdale, Cumbria
Mystery Worshipper: Hippo Most Criticus.
The church: St Mary the Virgin, Kirkby Lonsdale, Cumbria, England.
Denomination: Church of England.
The building: Dating back in parts to the 12th century, the church has been altered and extended several times, and is now an impressive but tantalising mixture – Norman and Gothic arches, pillars massive and slender, light and dark areas, windows stained and windows clear, all jostling each other somewhat haphazardly. This morning it seemed almost to be two churches, either side the pulpit, which was pretty invisible anyway to those like myself who were sitting behind pillars. The east window is a gorgeous riot of colour, predominantly blue, well set off by the 'rainbow' banners of the 7 churches (of the united parish, not of Asia).
The neighbourhood: The church is close to the old centre of Kirkby Lonsdale, set in a spacious churchyard guarded by impressive wrought-iron gates. It is surrounded on two sides by narrow streets, squares and yards with historic, stone-built shops and residential accommodation. The other two sides look down steeply on to the River Lune and give access to the vantage point known as Ruskin's View.
The cast: The service was led by Rev. Richard Mitchell, team vicar and second-in-command to the rector. The nativity puppet show, which occupied the place of the sermon, was presented by Richard Whinray and the Helping Hands Puppet Theatre visiting from Bradford.
What was the name of the service?
Parish Communion and Christmas Toy Service.

How full was the building?
The church could have held four times this morning's congregation of about 120, but it comfortably filled the half of the church on which most of the action was centred.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
The door steward helpfully recommended me to sit "over the far side, where it's mostly happening this morning."

Was your pew comfortable?
As comfortable for sitting as a pew is ever likely to be, but it discouraged kneeling.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Free and easy chatter, not a deafening hubbub, but certainly not hushed whispers.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning, everyone."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
The Kirkby Lonsdale Team Ministry version of the "Common Worship" Communion Service, and "Hymns New & Old: New Anglican Edition", 1996.

What musical instruments were played?
Organ. The puppet show was accompanied by the recorded music of, I think, flute and guitar.

Did anything distract you?
Having the congregation shepherded into one half of the church at the start, and then back into the other half after the puppet show. As this was obviously a family service, and as nobody else seemed to mind one or two of the younger children talking and running about, I didn't find the children distracting either.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Brisk, cheerful and efficient. The minister's matter-of-fact, no-nonsense friendliness was the antithesis of the parsonical and kept things (and the congregation) moving "at the double" – but with little sense of rush.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
The marionette nativity show lasted exactly 10 minutes and made good use of the younger members of choir and congregation, who had been well rehearsed for their roles.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – I must pay tribute to the strikingly depicted and characterful puppets – with the exception of the very two-dimensional and decidedly one-sided sheep, who brought the house down when they had to shuffle backwards to get off stage.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The puppet show linked Old Testament prophecy to the shepherds and their angels. The highlight was the dance of the marionettes around the manger to the tune of "Silent night". I wonder whether nativity plays, in whatever medium, tend to sharpen children's critical faculties or blunt them – or which effect is intended by the presenters!

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The singing of "In the bleak midwinter" before the communion service.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
It was positive torture waiting (in vain) for some mention in the worship of the colourful parcels of toys arranged round the altar.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
One younger man said "hello" as he passed me, the coffee-seller explained he was going "off shift", and two of the clergy glanced in my direction, seemed to mark me down for a chat, but were then diverted by some other business. Neither ever reached me. Not that I minded – being shy!

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
The statutory plastic cup in holder, but a very presentable brew and hot. No cakes or cookies, but for 20p what can you expect?

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 – the thought did cross my mind that, what with the church and the general character of the town and its architecture, it might be worth moving to Kirkby Lonsdale.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
A very difficult question. Yes, it was reassuring to find a service that was genuinely cheerful without manipulating the emotions. And no, because it did nothing at all to reassure me that the Christian faith is not based on outmoded superstition.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The clarity, speed and maturity of delivery of some quite intricate lines by the young puppeteers behind the screen.
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