|265: St Leonard, Sandridge, Hertfordshire, England|
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Mystery Worshipper: Mrs Alighieri.
The church: St Leonard, Sandridge, Hertfordshire, England.
Denomination: Church of England.
The building: Stunning village church with Roman bricks and a rood screen.
The neighbourhood: The church is just outside St Albans, a haunt of former Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie.
The cast: Rev. John Horner.
What was the name of the service?
Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.
How full was the building?
Pleasantly packed no spare seats, but no one in an uncomfortable situation.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
I had phoned the church's tower captain a couple of days before the service to ask if I could join in the bell-ringing, and he was very welcoming. I felt like I was a welcome guest in a small parish. Just before the service started, the couple next to me chatted briefly before I knelt to pray, and then after I'd prayed asked politely where I was from.
Was your pew comfortable?
Yes: standard pew and cushion.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Buzzing. There was a warm and expectant feeling in the congregation.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"All who are confirmed members of the Anglican Church or who wish to be are invited to receive communion..." (from the rubric of the communion service).
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Three printed sheets with a detailed order of service, the carols for all the services over the Christmas period, and the specific readings, collects and psalms for this service.
What musical instruments were played?
Did anything distract you?
Unfortunately, I heard someone mention sprouts, which set me thinking about how to put the Christmas dinner on.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Bells, no smells (but they wouldn't have been out of place), lots of ceremony, but it wasn't stand-offish. This was a sort of living liturgy, led by someone who genuinely cared about it, and who cared that his congregation understood what was going on.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9. The preacher had a habit of making eye-contact with everyone in the building (even those in awkward places), and it was like the pulpit couldn't quite contain him.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
He started with Kierkegaard's story of the king and the maiden. From that he explained what it meant for God to become the baby. He explained the cost of love and then asked whether we were prepared to make that sort of sacrifice, for love.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The use of the liturgy. It was inspired.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Dante and his brother coming in mildly inebriated and slightly late. Although they weren't the only ones, they were in a minority of three in around a couple of hundred people.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
At the end of the service, the Vicar explained that as we left we should share the peace, taking the peace from the manger home to our families. He then belted to the back of the church, to be able to greet everyone in this way. I wasn't able to look lost I felt like I was among friends.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
I didn't have any. I wanted to get back home to get the majority of the Christmas dinner done.
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
10. If I lived in Sandridge or on that side of St Albans I would be there most weeks, ringing the bells and feeling a part of a community.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. From the prayers that opened the bell-ringing (a rarity in towers these days) to remind us why we were there, to the wonderful ringing, to the buzz as I descended the ladder into church, to the welcome as I took a seat, through the singing.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The way the congregation sang the service so confidently. I left the service on the biggest spiritual high of the year, bar none.