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549: St Stephen's, Comely Bank, Edinburgh
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St Stephen's Church, Comely Bank, Edinburgh, Scotland
Mystery Worshipper: Outchristian.
The church: St Stephen's, Comely Bank, Edinburgh.
Denomination: Church of Scotland (Presbyterian).
The building: A traditional church building on the corner of two main roads in a middle class residential area not far form the city centre of Edinburgh.
The church: The church is the local Church of Scotland for the immediate area and I would suspect that its community is geographically defined.
The neighbourhood: The area is very middle class – recent reports have indicated that house prices have risen in this area faster than anywhere else in Scotland. The local community is made up mainly of retired people, professional families and young professionals and this was reflected in the congregation.
The cast: The service was mainly led by the minister, Rev. Graham Dickson with the children's addresse being taken by the church youth worker, Jonathan de Groot. Both were very well prepared and professional without appearing overly formal or intimidating.
What was the name of the service?
11.00am morning worship – with a special theme for Christian Aid Sunday.

How full was the building?
The building was two thirds to three quarters full. The congregation was a mixture of ages and sexes although I would estimate that 60-70 per cent of those present were women (although almost all who took part in worship from the front were men) and at least a quarter looked like single retired women.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
I was handed the service sheet bundle and welcomed with a cheery "Hello".

Was your pew comfortable?
The pew was traditional but padded. As the building wasn't full I didn't have to sit too close to anyone else – always a good thing in a strange church.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
On entry a praise band made up of three girls (singing) and a boy (on an electric guitar) (all four in the 14-18 age group) were singing modern christian music. They were not singing particularly loudly so it was possible to chat or pray if you wished. Many were chatting which, rather than being annoying, made the place seem friendly and real. As 11.00am came, the praise band was replaced by traditional (and rather sombre) organ music. I suddenly felt that I was now "in church.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
Good morning everyone and welcome to our worship at St Stephen's Comely Bank on this Christian Aid Sunday.

What books did the congregation use during the service?
We were given a glossy full-colour service sheet (prepared by Christian Aid for use ecumenically) which had all the words (other than the sermon) that would be said during the service. In addition we received a notice sheet and a small sheet which was a demographic survey on behalf of the Scottish national church census. Pew bibles were available (NIV) and were referred to during scripture readings. There were also two different hymnals on the pews which were not used.

What musical instruments were played?
In addition to the electric guitar that formed part of the praise band there was an organ which played for most of the hymns.

Did anything distract you?
Despite a full notice sheet being issued, the oral announcements went on for a long time at the beginning of worship. The offertory hymn was changed from the one on the sheet and the congregation were not directed to the words or invited to join in with the choir. I found this annoying because I like to sing (despite having no talent at all in that area). The Christian Aid format was too much like "reading with mother" for me – all the words said were printed to read even if it was not necessary for responses etc. I found this too formalistic and the Minister admitted when I spoke with him afterwards that this would not be their usual style. Lastly, they used exclusively male images for God (lots of "Father" and "he") which is usual for many Christians but which I find off-putting.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The worship was trying to be modern (they used computer slides projected onto a small screen set up at the front), and the worship team appeared to be committed to trying to be as modern and relevant as they could be. However, the service didn't really succeed – for example many of the hymns were ancient words with obscure theology that I am sure meant little to some of the congregation (me included). However, that may be more the fault of Christian Aid in trying to put together an "all things for all people" ecumenical service.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
13 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – Computer slides were used throughout the sermon with the images changing as the sermon theme was developed. It was all very modern, and in marked contrast with the imposing traditional pulpit into which the minister was exiled while preaching. His preaching style was informal and I assume that he was trying to make his message accessible to the un-churched.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The minister preached from Amos chapter eight, and compared the social injustices against which Amos was agitating with the injustices committed against the world's poorest by our system of international trade.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The minister and the youth worker were professional and engaging. The decision to be open to modern and "un-churchy" approaches was interesting (especially in such a traditional and middle-class setting) even if they still have some distance to go on this particular journey. It was uplifting to be in a mixed age congregation where they seemed to be determined to make all ages welcome.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Despite the early promise suggested by the presence of a praise band, the hymns were ancient dirges (except for one modern hymn for which the praise band was brought back). It would have been nice if the sermon theme had been developed into a call for positive social action – e.g. lobbying your local Member of Parliament.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Early in the service it had been mentioned that we were welcome to stay for coffee and home-made cake. At the end of the service no further mention was made. There were three exits from which people were leaving and it was not clear which led to coffee. I stayed in my pew waiting to see what would happen. Within three or four minutes (which actually felt longer than it sounds and I'm not sure if I would have waited normally) someone noticed that I was looking lost and came and introduced herself to me. I revealed myself as a Mystery Worshipper and was introduced to others in the congregational leadership – including the minister.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
In the end, I didn't make the coffee room as I got chatting to the minister. I wish I had managed to have some of that promised home made cake!

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – If I were not happy in my existing church I would seriously consider this church as a new home. It is near to where I live and is not just "going through the motions" as some churches do.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Very much. The leadership were friendly and happy, and very much positive adverts for Christianity. The social justice focus for Christian Aid Sunday made our faith feel like it was something that could make a real difference for good in people's lives.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The obvious potential of the congregation. I am not sure how much of that potential was realised in this particular service but I feel confident that they are a congregation with a positive future.
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