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577: St. Michael and All Angels, Hughenden, Bucks, England
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St. Michael and All Angels, Hughenden, Buckinghamshire.
Mystery Worshipper: Johnny Alpha.
The church: St. Michael and All Angels, Hughenden, Buckinghamshire, England.
Denomination: Church of England.
The building: No surprises, really: it's a pretty standard English country church on the outside. Inside, a mixture of medieval and renaissance paintings (many of which were apparently whitewashed over under Cromwell and rediscovered relatively recently) and Victorian statuary (including some hideous soppy-looking angels on the pulpit. This, by the way, was inhabited not by a preacher but by a big OHP screen).
The church: Apparently pretty big. There are between two and four services on any given Sunday, and several of these are very well-attended. I have been here once or twice before, but not for a couple of years now, and certainly not since the change of management (see below).
The neighbourhood: The Hughenden Valley is your Platonic model of ideal British countryside. The church building itself stands within the grounds of Hughenden Manor, a National Trust property which was once the home of great Victorian Benjamin D' Israeli.
The cast: The service was led by the newly incumbent vicar, the Rev. Simon Cronk. He was accompanied by a number of members of the congregation, including a couple who came to the front to lead the intercessions, and a lady whose job it seemed to be to organise the church into doing the actions.
What was the name of the service?
All Age Worship, 9.30am. But wait! That means it's a... family service! Oh well, too late to turn back now.

How full was the building?
About half full, in the ballpark of a hundred and twenty people, I think.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
I was greeted by a smiling girl of about 12 who handed me a copy of mission praise and a service sheet, and a bloke in a woolly jumper, who didn't seem to notice that I'd actually entered the church. Wracked with existential doubt, I found a pew, sitting with my wife's family.

Was your pew comfortable?
It was a pew, really. It isn't the worst I've ever sat in.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Pleasant. There was a lot of pre-service chatter, kids running around, stuff like that. Everybody actually appeared to want to be there. However, at one point there was a slight pause in the talk, and I looked up. A chill went down my spine as the verger, a big, shaven-headed man with an ear ring and a more than faintly sinister resemblance to Uncle Fester from the Addams Family, glided down the aisle, casting an eye over the congregation. He wasn't seen again in the service.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"A very good morning to you all – good gracious me... is that OK?... can you hear me now?" A few seconds of dodgy PA-related shenanigans ensued, before the service got going.

What books did the congregation use during the service?
Bible (New International Version) in the pews, and Mission Praise. All the liturgy was on a blue piece of paper, which was clearly printed and easy to understand.

What musical instruments were played?
There was an incredibly loud organ. They really don't make them like that anymore. In the middle of the service, a small piano-type keyboard was used for some of the choruses which were sung.

Did anything distract you?
The reading (John 14:15-21) was delivered (very well) by a young lad who was frankly too short. You could, if you craned your neck, see the top of his head poking out above the ornate-looking brass lectern.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Pretty middle-of-the-road, actually. It was a family service, after all. The songs ranged from Blessed Be the Name of the Lord (one of my bêtes noires) to Oh, the Deep Deep Love of Jesus, a favourite of mine. Everything was sung with gusto by all the people I could see.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
Twelve minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 for delivery, 10 for content. Rev. Cronk is clearly a very personable and engaging chap, capable of getting across complicated ideas in simple terms without coming across as patronising. Which is a really hard thing to do.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
It was about the way in which we encounter the three persons of God in the act of prayer. I was well impressed. Any preacher who can deliver a sermon on the Trinity in terms an eight-year-old can understand without dumbing down (he even quoted Augustine) and achieve this in only twelve minutes, deserves my respect and admiration. Absolutely excellent.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
About halfway through, Rev. Cronk got the church to sing a very simple chorus in a three-part round. I groaned inwardly, since in my experience this always ends up going horribly wrong. Except it didn't. Everyone sang in perfect harmony at exactly the right point, creating an effect not unlike a Taizé meditation. It was beautiful, so beautiful in fact that I didn't mind when we all did it a second time. At the end, there was a pause, as if we could all feel God's presence there in the church.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Unfortunately, immediately after the round, we then had to sing Bind us Together. A very enthusiastic lady ran around making sure we were all holding hands with everyone else in the church – which took absolutely ages – and then tried to get us all to sway in the chorus. Lots of people (including the vicar, who, hilariously, swayed in all the wrong places) got this a bit garbled. I couldn't help dissolving into paroxysms of helpless laughter, which I wasn't able to hide on account of the fact that I was holding hands with the people next to me. Needless to say, the wonderful atmosphere created by the preceding song was completely blown.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
The people I accompanied cleared off, leaving me to wander up to the church house alone. There, I stood at the side, until a very genial elderly gentleman came up and introduced himself to me. We talked for some time.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Coffee, in plastic cups. But no tea. There didn't seem to be that much of it, so I felt lucky to get some. It was all right.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 – I think that if I was looking, I'd definitely come back at least once.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, very much so. Here was, on first impression, a church full of people who did actually want to be here. The whole thing had a wonderful sense of family. People were included, both in the actual service, and in the very open and warm attitude of the vicar.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The way in which the vicar brought four members of the congregation to illustrate his point in a very powerful way.
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