|526: St Peter's, Levenshulme, Manchester, England|
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Mystery Worshipper: The Irregular.
The church: St Peter's, Levenshulme, Manchester, England.
Denomination: Church of England.
The building: Traditional Norman style church with an impressively high roof. I wouldn't fancy having to try and paint it and judging by the slightly distressed look of some of the higher altitude paintwork, it's clear my reservations aren't unique! Around 17 years ago, the back part of the church was sectioned off and converted into a split-level space with a lounge, kitchen and other rooms downstairs and a vaulted space above.
The church: Much excitement was evident in the church as the following night they were to be on national TV, having recently taken part in the "Changing Rooms" show. This normally involves two sets of neighbours undertaking a make-over on one room in each other's houses. The twist for this episode was that parishioners from St Peter's had been let loose on the local Baptist Church's main worship space, while the Baptists had transformed St Peter's vault room. The church seem pretty pleased with the tasteful crimson baronial hall look their vault received (complete with massive sparkly gold cross mural), but I detected rather more anxiety about the bright orange, red and yellow overhaul the infamous Laurence Llewelyn Bowen had visited on the Baptists. Apparently the congregation are still "getting used to it".
The neighbourhood: Levenshulme lies a couple of miles south of Manchester City centre and while it doesn't escape the common difficulties of such urban neighbourhoods, it fair buzzes with life and the many different community groups rub along for the most part in comfortable co-existence. In addition to the multitude of bargain shops and fast-food outlets, the area also boasts several decent restaurants and pubs.
The cast: The service was led by the lay reader, Val, with the rector, Rev Les Ireland, dashing back from St Andrews' (the sister church in this joint benefice), in time to preach.
What was the name of the service?
11am Morning Worship. This week also encompassing the commissioning of Olive Price as Heaton Deanery Leader of the Mother's Union.
How full was the building?
The commissioning had attracted Mother's Union members from other churches in the deanery, which had swelled the numbers to around 80. I understand the normal attendance is closer to 60.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
No formal welcome as such. A hymnbook and order of service was handed to me without comment. One person did give me a smile as I made my way through to the worship space.
Was your pew comfortable?
The modernization of the church building had seen the old pews replaced by loose chairs, some of which were padded and others rather more austere, bare wooden affairs. I selected one of the last few remaining padded seats, which was very comfortable. There was a tray on the chair in front for my service books.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Not too noisy, nor overly quiet. People were generally milling in and extra, unpadded chairs were being arranged for the latecomers. At St Peter's, it appears, your rump pays the price for tardiness.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
The service started a little uncertainly with the worship group leader muttering, "Morning, everybody good to see so many faces here at St Peter's. We're going to start with a hymn; join in if you know it." Either no one did know the hymn, or the muttering had failed to catch their attention. Either way, we limped through some song about death and praise.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The readings were taken from the RSV Bible, and the Common Worship booklet was supplemented by a separate leaflet covering the commissioning element of today's proceedings. Complementing the OHP was a hymnbook called The Source, "the definitive worship collection compiled by Graham Kendrick".
What musical instruments were played?
The accompaniment switched between a recorded backing tape and a basic music group consisting of a keyboard, guitar, basic drum kit and a handful of singers (who, to be fair, did perk up a bit as the service progressed).
Did anything distract you?
Just as the music group were really starting to get it together, the unthinkable happened. Suddenly out of nowhere came the sound we all fear, the noise that can cause grown men to weep and strong women to run in terror, the very house tune of the dancehalls of Hades... the tambourine. It transpired that two young lads were taking it in turns on the drum kit, with the redundant individual taking up tambourine duties. Most unfortunately however, all rhythmic ability appeared to leave their bodies as they vacated the drum stool. The resulting mish-mash of jangling seemed to reflect their embarrassment, lacking both in direction and purpose.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The worship consisted of basic choruses and a token hymn. A long way from smells and bells, but a single and discretely held out hand was the closest it got to arm-waving, happy clappy.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
Rev. Ireland bustled in halfway through the service and after apologizing for his late arrival from his duties at the other church, welcomed us all and started talking about Olive's commissioning. I have to confess that he was a couple of minutes in before I twigged that this must be the sermon. Similarly it ended by moving organically into the commissioning itself. By my estimation, the central bit that you might call a sermon was about 13 minutes long.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
It focused on the commissioning. As well as pointing out the support that the role required from the church and the Mother's Union membership, he gave examples of some of the downsides of leadership. He warned Olive that she may face hurtful comments on a level with former England football coach, Graham "Turnip-head" Taylor, or even threatened stonings, like Moses. On balance, he considered that the Mother's Union would probably stop short of actual stoning, but suggested that one or two local members could be quite ferocious in their own unique ways.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
As the service drew to a close, I was struggling to name any particular bit that shone out for me. The service was pleasant enough, but not particularly outstanding in any one area. However, the slightly bland experience of the service was more than made up for by the welcome that followed.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
That blasted tambourine.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Fairly quickly someone came up to me and started chatting in a very friendly and easy manner. Similarly in the lounge over tea and coffee, a number of people including the rector made a point of speaking to me and their welcome came across as exceedingly genuine rather than dutiful.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
The coffee was Café Direct. It was hot, and extra points should certainly be awarded for the accompanying supply of quality choccie biscuits!
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 To be honest, it's not really my type of church, but the friendliness of the congregation after the service was exceptional and kind of makes me wish it was more my cup of tea.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
I have to say I didn't really manage to engage with the service itself much at all, but the relaxed warmth of the individuals who spoke to me afterwards did make me feel glad to be part of a community of believers that included them.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
One of the people I'd chatted to was the woman running the Traidcraft stall. As I made to leave she pointed out her usual seat in the church and generously offered that if I came again, I shouldn't hesitate to come and sit with her if I didn't want to sit on my own. If this is remotely your style of church I'd recommend you check them out (tambourine, Mother's Union and all!).