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449: St Bartholomew with St Andrew, St Andrew's Park, Bristol, England
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St Bartholomew with St Andrew, St Andrew's Park, Bristol, England
Mystery Worshipper: Chris Churchcrawler.
The church: St Bartholomew with St Andrew, St Andrew's Park, Bristol, England.
Denomination: Church of England.
The building: A very beautiful mid-pointed styled church of 1894 by Bassett Smith. He designed an identical builing for St John's in Caterham. The stone for the foundations came from a church which was never completed – St Martin's in Cromwell Road, which was abandoned just after work started! The present building is large and there are plans to reorder it.
The church: St Bartholomew's has always been in the low evangelical tradition – Bristol at one time was popular for Anglican Calvinism. Its first minister, Fred Sumner, was an energetic, modern sort of bloke. St Bart's is unusual in retaining a strong parachial identity in a city where gathered congregations are the norm.
The neighbourhood: St Bartholmew's is in a trendy, Victorian suburb, popular with students and new arrivals from London, although the church does retain a hub of people who have lived here a long time. Although it is next to a popular park, it suffers from not being in a focal point, such as a high street. Look out for villas designed by Stuart Coleman, who also desighned the former United Reformed Church nearby. These are in nightmare Gothic of the 1880s. Dracula would be happy with one of these.
The cast: Rev. Peter Bailey, Bishop Micheal of Swindon and Rev. Richard Burbridge.
What was the name of the service?
Baptism, confirmation and affirmation of baptismal vows.

How full was the building?
Mostly full, which for a large Victorian church is amazing!

Did anyone welcome you personally?
I was one of a choir made up of visiting choirs. I got there early and was met by Gordon, the crucifer of St Bartholomew's. As an organist, I always get to church far too early! I ended up reading a magazine before the service in the vestry.

Was your pew comfortable?
I was in the choir stalls which were very comfortable and have their own central heating. The size of the church is such that the chancel has three pairs of stalls instead of the usual two.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Very cheerful. The organist made a few jokes in the vestry and then played some excellent music before the service. There was the usual cram in the vestry and the level of excitement seemed to build up as the bishop came in and we all processed down the aisle. The aisles are so long here you could land a jumbo jet down them.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Blessed be God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
A leaflet with an adaptation of Common Worship.

What musical instruments were played?
The magnificent, two-manual, 43-stop Helle organ. The console is 6 ft under the nave and one expects it to rise like an organ in a cinema! The pipes would be better placed at the west end as they currently drown out the choir. Typical Victorians!

Did anything distract you?
The vastness of the building – but this was a good distraction. It is a magnificent building (very underrated by local architectural buffs) yet while the structure is curiously complex, the furnishings and decoration is typically low church and very plain. It could do with some banners and a bit of tasteful colour. I also couldn't help wondering if it is lonely being a bishop, wandering from church to church...

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The worship was in a traditional, low church, Common Worship style. The hymns were, "At the name of Jesus," "Seek ye first," "Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah" and "Shine, Jesus, Shine". I like "Shine, Jesus, Shine," but it is getting a bit dated and over-done everywhere. I thought the basses were going to hit the roof on the last line of "Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah".

Exactly how long was the sermon?
20 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
10 – The bishop's voice made the delivery very audible and the sermon was well structured. At first I thought his tone of voice and speech pattern was very "vicarish", but this impression was soon dispelled by the strength of what he was saying.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The sermon was based loosely on the story of Jacob and Esau, asking, "where was God?" The bisop drew paralells with the events of 11th September. For the first half of the sermon I was thinking, this is great stuff, but what has this got to do with confirmation? I was studying people's faces to see if anyone else thought the same. However, this was a cunning plan, because the bishop made the point that being a Christian is not easy and can be a lonely experience. I thought this was great – far better to be given a realistic impression of being a Christian than being built up and then let down later.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The bishop's sermon. He was not afraid to tackle difficult questions and some of the dilemmas which Christians face.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
I would have been happier with a few more hymns, but not being one for liturgical fuss I was quite happy with the order of service. Once or twice the microphones died, which is a serious problem in a building of this size.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I made my own way to the church hall and chatted to the minister and some members of the congregation.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
I had orange juice.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 – A friendly church which is going places.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
In a way. But more importantly, it made me feel more realistic about my faith and encouraged me not to be afraid of asking difficult questions.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
Being in a warm, happy and very large church.
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