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504: Wesley Methodist, Reading, England
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Wesley Methodist Church, Reading, UK
Mystery Worshipper: Sweet Swan of Kennet.
The church: Wesley Methodist, Reading, England.
Denomination: Methodist.
The building: Victorian Gothic (1873) building with recent extensions. Large and fairly austere interior space – the beams framing the plain plaster walls look recently renovated. Panels at front with Ten Commandments, Lord's Prayer and other scriptural writings. Larger panels proclaim, in gilt on blue, "O Worship the Lord in the Beauty of Holiness" and "Holy, Holy, Holy: Lord of Hosts".
The church: Most of the congregation commute to church from a wide area. They do, however, seem very comfortable with each other and their church.
The neighbourhood: The church stands at a busy road junction, in the commercial heart of Reading and close to the River Kennet. The immediate surroundings are office buildings, with comparatively few residents. The Lansdowne Ale House, a lively pub with good food and a distinctly Irish flavour (it was St Patrick's Day when I visited), is just across the road.
The cast: Prof. Barry Jones.
What was the name of the service?
Morning Worship.

How full was the building?
Somewhat over 100 in attendance. I estimate that the church could seat 400 and probably more, but the congregation filled the space comfortably.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes, a smile and welcome from the lady who handed me my hymnbook. She was concerned that I should feel at home. Several people made a point of coming up to me before the service to say hello and ask if I was new.

Was your pew comfortable?
Standard wooden pew with padding. The absence of kneelers meant lots of legroom.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Very informal, lots of chat, gossip, people generally greeting each other and myself. A lot of small children, some running about the church.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning – welcome to our service at Wesley this morning."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
"Hymns & Psalms."

What musical instruments were played?
Organ. A piano is on show but remained covered.

Did anything distract you?
The Victorian panels at the front were hard on the eye! Lots of young children were running up and down the aisles in the early part of the service. The minister aimed a mini-sermon at them, on the subject of St Patrick, but few were paying attention. One particular faux-pas – he produced a map of the British Isles and asked a child to identify which bit of the "United Kingdom" this was a special day for. There are parts of Reading where one can be tarred and feathered for less! The main sermon went on rather too long.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Informal in the first part, until the children left for their own classes. There was a ceremony of decorating the Lenten Cross, which I rather liked as the Cross looked rough and ready and devoid of sentiment, hung as it was with nails, crown of thorns and other paraphernalia. The main emphasis was traditionally Methodist: no formality or ceremony, hymn-singing interspersed with preaching.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
23 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – Very clear preaching style, rather didactic in tone. Potentially interesting, but the theology went over the heads of most of the congregation and the sermon itself was too long.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Jesus guarantees us a better agreement with God. But salvation also requires change in us.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The sheer friendliness and inclusiveness of the place, and the sense that people were there not out of duty but because they wanted to be. And the playing of Bach's Passacaglia in C minor – one of my favourite pieces of music – as a closing voluntary.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Children rushing about; wincing at the preacher's Irish faux-pas; the congregation with lots of young children flailing around trying unsuccessfully to sing "St Patrick's Breastplate".

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I felt a bit like a spare part for a few minutes, but then people came up to me and talked. I took time out to examine the noticeboard minutely. The preacher came up and introduced himself, chatted in a friendly way and made sure I had plenty of information about the church and a copy of the magazine.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
No problem getting a cup of tea without milk – made in a teapot and good and hot. Instant coffee and fruit juices also available, with a good selection of biscuits, including custard creams, bourbons and chocolate chip.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 – I love the welcoming and inclusive atmosphere, the informality and the sense of not having one particular doctrine thrust down one's throat. Having been brought up Methodist, it was hard for me to go back, but I'm glad I did.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes indeed, and also enveloped by love.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
Feeling welcomed and included without any sense that this was a chore.
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