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414: King Street Congregational, Newcastle-under-Lyme, England
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King Street Congregational, Newcastle-under-Lyme
Mystery Worshipper: Hippo Most Criticus.
The church: King Street Congregational, Newcastle-under-Lyme, England.
Denomination: Congregational.
The building: A black and rather forbidding Victorian edifice with impressive spire. The grimness is partly relieved by a light and modern reception area, where coffee is served, added to the north-eastern corner of the building. Internally, a lot of woodwork, central organ, rear gallery and pews.
The church: A mixture of all ages in the congregation, and a very happy, family spirit seemed to pervade.
The neighbourhood: It is an administrative, commercial and light industrial area immediately outside Newcastle-under-Lyme's inner ring road. The church is just round the corner from the Jubilee Baths.
The cast: Rev. Ian Gregory (minister), Barnabas ("the Bible Bear"), Rachel Billington (youth leader), Simon Poole, Rachel Smith.
What was the name of the service?
Sunday morning praise.

How full was the building?
Approximately half-full – rather less if you include the gallery.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes, a welcome and a joke on the door, and when I took my seat, a very cheery "hallo" from the pew behind.

Was your pew comfortable?
"Comfortable" is not the word that springs to mind! The ultra-narrow ledges we perched on were more like misericords – without the sense of humour!

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Happy chatter, although I wasn't very early.

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

What books did the congregation use during the service?
A songbook – I made a mental note of the name, but somehow it got wiped!

What musical instruments were played?
Piano and organ.

Did anything distract you?
Barnabas the Bible Bear – a regular participant, it appears, in the children's slot. Though that part of the service was a jolly, if rather inconsequential, variant on "The Antiques Roadshow". Also I personally found it offputting, not being a member of this particular church family, that a full quarter of an hour was taken up at the start largely by the minister darting haphazardly around the congregation with his radio mike collecting details of activities, achievements, anniversaries, health, etc. The sound system was excellent, though – far too good when the radio gubbins crashed to the floor!

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The service was informal, low-key and understated. With some relief I found that the two testimonies by Simon Poole and Rachel Smith fitted that description too. People here seemed actually to enjoy the interlude of the Peace.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
18 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – The sermon was well prepared, fluent, but perhaps a little "distrait". It was built around an excellent summary of the book of Job interlaced with well-coordinated extracts read by a second voice. At times the minister's speech-patterns recalled Rabbi Lionel Blue.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The subject announced for the service was "The Mystery of Suffering". The main thrust was that suffering, like the saving death and resurrection of Christ and many other things in life, too, cannot be explained or understood rationally. As Job's comforters show, even orthodox doctrine can be a bar to real understanding, let alone pastoral sympathy. Saul Kane from Masefield's poem "Everlasting Mercy", which was new to me, was invoked to underline the point that "I don't know" is a great motto. The head is often a poor judge: to know the real truths of life, listen to your heart.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The (female) voice of God in the readings from Job.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The thought of having to spend all eternity balancing on those pews!

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Three or four mini-conversations with various folk before I ever reached the coffee area. This friendly chat continued while I drank. Afterwards, I talked for a few minutes (still in disguise) with the minister: we lamented the failure a few years ago of a church service review project with which he had been associated. But he happily recommended Ship of Fools' Mystery Worshipper as a worthwhile successor. "They are", he said, "usually pretty kind". There are, of course, always exceptions!

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Didn't sample the coffee, but the squash (plastic mug, of course) and biscuits were acceptable.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 – I don't commit myself easily either! But it would certainly be worth a further trial.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
No, but I don't think it was meant to today. In any case, I was glad that in what was said there was no overly smug ring-fencing of Christians from the full impact of human suffering.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
Ask me then!
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