|523: Halesworth & Bramfield United Reformed, Halesworth, Suffolk, England|
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Mystery Worshipper: Erish and Chameleon.
The church: Halesworth & Bramfield United Reformed, Halesworth, Suffolk, England.
Denomination: United Reformed Church.
The building: A square, beige brick building, originally built in the late 18th century, and currently covered in scaffolding. The inside has stained glass windows in soft pastel shades and geometric patterns. A dark wooden balcony runs around three sides of the upstairs with white painted fretwork that can only be described as tasteful.
The neighbourhood: Halesworth is an extremely picturesque market town in the East Anglian countryside. The population is a mix of Suffolk farmers, suburban retirees and a handful of skateboarding youths. The church seems to act as a source of support and social activities for the village, with events and meetings happening almost every day of the week.
The cast: Rev. Richard Edwards, the minister, assisted by four uncredited elders. The readings were given by Pauline Lamb, Deacon of the United Reformed Church in Newquay, and Peter Flint from Bracknall. Both were introduced by the minister, the former as someone who had been on the prayer list last year, but obviously better now.
What was the name of the service?
Communion. There was also the additional attraction of a confirmation, and three other people coming into church membership.
How full was the building?
About 100 people, fairly well packed into the downstairs pews of the building. The upper balcony was empty. The congregation stretched over a reasonable age-range, from young families to elderly pensioners. Everyone seemed to know each other, with lots of greetings and hugs as people arrived, and there were oh crikeys! and sympathetic clucks as the minister announced that so-and-so was in hospital with a twisted bowel, and someone else was still waiting for a hospital bed.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
We were greeted at the inside lobby with a "welcome!" and a hymnbook shoved into our hands.
Was your pew comfortable?
We had long traditional wooden pews. Highly uncomfortable, particularly for the shorter member of our party, who was grazing her toes on the ground and missing the comfort of a kneeler to rest her feet on.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
There was a pre-service warm up led by the music group, who were fired up with charismatic zeal, almost to beyond the point of happy-clappy. Chameleon was particularly struck by their ability to bob up and down while playing. At one minute to 11, the music group downed instruments, and the OHP screen was pulled back to reveal the organist, who then launched into rather banal churchy music.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Welcome to all visitors this morning" spoken by the singer from the worship band. She then went on to read out the notices, obviously struggling to read the handwriting of whoever had written them.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
There were Good News Bibles in the pews. Hymns were taken from Rejoice and Sing, a blue covered melody edition hymnbook. And a printed copy of Sing Hallelujah and an OHP were used for the pre-service warm up.
What musical instruments were played?
An organ plus the worship band, consisting of guitar, two violins, a clarinet, a keyboard, a vocalist and a thankfully rather restrained drumkit. The clarinet player doubled up on tambourine, and she and the vocalist got out shaker eggs for "Rejoice rejoice". "Shaking for God," as Chameleon put it.
Did anything distract you?
Where do we start? Mildly distracting was the elderly woman behind us, dressed in tastefully matching teal beret and coat, enthusiastically raising both arms and bobbing up and down during the warm up. There was the "I am the vine" banner, hanging on the right wall, with decorations that looked like large clumps of broccoli. And the children ("younger church") processing in and out to see certain bits of the service, leading to the hurried repetition of points already covered during the sermon. And how about the minister? He seemed to have a permanent smile plastered onto his face he was either cross-eyedly contemplating the infinite, or remembering a particularly satisfying bowel movement. In his vocal mannerisms and intonation he was a dead ringer for Peter Cook's impressive clergyman from The Princess Bride, but without the tat to help him along.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Lots of clapping, hopping and hand waving during the warm up, which cooled down to the occasional declarative arm raise once the service began. The hymns during the service were fairly standard upbeat ones, although the language had been updated and made politically correct. (Brother, sister, let me serve you, anyone?) The music group joined the organ for some of them, adding some rather impressive syncopated (or just poorly timed?) tambourine playing. We even managed a modulation for the final verse of At the Name of Jesus. The organist did some intriguing things with introduction tempos which bore very little relation to the speed at which we sang the rest of the song, which was disconcerting to say the least. On the non-nit-picky side, the worship was obviously heart felt, and the congregation joined in enthusiastically, giving a rousing rendition of each hymn.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
14 minutes. It felt longer.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
4 An earnest, though somewhat disjointed delivery, without notes. He left the lectern several times to directly address the confirmation candidate. This was accompanied by some rather worrying facial grimaces which diverted attention from the main focus of the sermon.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
This was a confirmation service, with one woman being confirmed and three others coming into church membership. The sermon therefore took bits from the Gospel reading (doubting Thomas), and linked it to the profession of faith that the confirmation candidate was going to make later on in the service.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The real feeling of commitment and family among the congregation, and the enthusiastic singing, giving the hymns the treatment they deserved. The sense of being part of the wider family of God. The scripture readings were given by elders from other congregations. The intercessions included prayers for all those who are worshipping God this morning, whether in large cathedrals or secretly in hiding.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
There was an odd, quasi-liturgical hodgepodge in the run up to communion. The "Narrative of the Institution With Responses" was read from the hymn book. The minister then rather apologetically suggested, "Perhaps we could just say the sursum corda on the next page," and then proceeded to lead us through the "lift up your hearts," "holy, holy," and the memorial acclamation, one after another. As we are Anglicans or Catholics, this lack of structure was somewhat confusing. Undue stress was placed on the communion being "only a symbol." This was said once before the bread was distributed, once afterwards, and once before the individual cups of grape juice were handed round. And at the very end they hit us with saying the Grace to each other which meant looking round and grinning aimlessly .
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
We were warmly greeted and welcomed by people who recognised us as visitors. The minister himself came and smiled enthusiastically at us, and asked if we'd enjoyed the service.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There wasn't any, much to Chameleon's disgust. Apparently if we'd come for a family service, we would have had some.
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
There was a range of votes on this one. Chameleon is pondering going back this evening for more of the "warm up" style music in their Modern Easter Praise service, while Erish was so badly traumatized by the minister's constant references to the bread and wine being "only a symbol" that she's planning on hitting the nearest tridentine Catholic mass instead. But we all agreed that the welcoming atmosphere was a Very Good Thing.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Overall, yes. To see a church worshipping the same God in such a very different way from how we are accustomed, yet with similar beliefs, reminded us yet again of the diversity and something for everyone in the family of God.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
Erish: The choice of communion bread: tear your own from the quartered hot-dog bun, or go for the neat little pre-cut cubes from finest Mother's Pride sliced white. Chameleon: the impressive clergyman from Princess Bride, aka Wev Wichard Edwards.