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602: St James the Great, Darlington, England
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S. James-the-Great, Darlington, United Kingdom
Mystery Worshipper: Abed-Nego.
The church: St James the Great, Darlington, England.
Denomination: Church of England.
The building: The church had just celebrated the 125th anniversary of its dedication. It is set in an industrial suburb of Darlington known as Albert Hill, which is near the main railway line from London to Edinburgh. The exterior is bleak, but with one glance at the beautifully tended garden, I could almost sense the welcome that was waiting within. Once inside the door, I was overwhelmed by the light and colour which seemed to radiate from the sanctuary and side chapels. The obvious care and attention to every detail within the building took my breath away. This is one of the loveliest church interiors I have ever seen, and the memory of it will not be easily erased.
The church: I have never felt so warmly greeted or so readily assimilated into any group of people. I could not discern any particular social background or age group in the ascendancy – but everyone, except for the celebrant, had lovely, "homey" northern English accents, and warm welcoming smiles.
The neighbourhood: St James-the-Great is set in an industrial suburb, the by-product of a 19th century revolution that cared little for the housing of the working classes. In recent times, several elderly care homes have opened nearby.
The cast: The celebrant was Canon David Hinge, and the preacher was Fr Ian Grieves.
What was the name of the service?
Parish mass and sermon.

How full was the building?
Pretty full; I'd say about 100 worshippers of all ages.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
We arrived half an hour before mass, but nonetheless there were three ladies waiting – maybe a little surprised to see us early birds but ready to give us a warm welcome and to hand us the materials which would steer us through the service. As soon as we set out towards our pews, a priest (who later turned out to be Canon Hinge) greeted us with a firm "Welcome to Saint-James-the-Great!"

Was your pew comfortable?
The pews were some of the most comfortable I have encountered. They were of the Victorian open back variety, so it was easy to put our books down in front of us. And the tapestry kneelers had just the right level of "give".

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
It was quiet, except that an acolyte approached me wanting to know how I had found the church. He was particularly pleased to hear that I had discovered it on the internet as he was the church's web-master!

What were the exact opening words of the service?
Priest : "Good morning everybody." Congregation (loudly) : "Good morning, father!" Strictly speaking this wasn't quite the beginning of the service, but introduced a series of lively notices of upcoming events.

What books did the congregation use during the service?
The English Hymnal – The Mass, which was a superbly clear, and beautifully illustrated booklet published by the church. We were also handed St James' newsletter which contained details of readings, psalm responses, the eucharistic acclamation and the anthem – also details of weekday masses and activities.

What musical instruments were played?
Organ, played by David Garrood. He provided some of the most imaginative re-harmonisations of standard hymns I have ever heard. The congregation responded with really strong and enthusiastic singing. For the closing voluntary, his assistant took over for an energetically inspired play-out which was loudly applauded by the congregation.

Did anything distract you?
Well, there were the usual restless youngsters and squeaky babies, but nothing was more distracting – in the best sense – than the exceedingly lovely shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
This place has the fervour of a revivalist rally and the trappings of St Peter's in Rome! The liturgy was in contemporary English however. The ritual, which was quite detailed, was perfectly executed, and the congregational responses were deafening.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
10 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 – Fr Grieves has a no-nonsense style that gets to the point and gets on with it. He is a very talented public speaker. I would have given him a 10 if he'd delivered it by memory.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
He took as his text a verse from Ecclesiastes – "Resentment and anger, these are foul things" and wove it into the Gospel for the day – our Lord's response to S. Peter about forgiveness (77 times) and the parable of the unforgiving debtor. Eloquently, Fr Grieves pointed out that hating will stop only when forgiveness begins. He tied this in with flash-points across the world, in particular the probable war against Iraq. Likening debts to sins – as in the Lord's Prayer – he emphasised the need for forgiveness. "What if we were to do as the unforgiving servant did?"

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The sense of being in a place where the only agenda was to offer praise to almighty God as perfectly as human imperfections allow.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Until about five or so minutes before the service there was a lot of activity in the sanctuary. It felt as if every choir member, and there were about 20 of them, had to come in and re-arrange their music personally.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
No time for that. We couldn't get out of our pews before the meet and greet got underway. There was no way we were going to be excluded from Parish Breakfast in the church hall across the street. Fr Grieves apologised that he couldn't join us since he had to attend to three baptisms. It was quite difficult steering a pathway to the hall since those baptismal parties had crowded out the sidewalk. There must have been the best part of a hundred people waiting to get into the church!

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Tea, coffee and biscuits – and we all sat at tables restaurant-style.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
10 – Darn it, I'd move to Darlington for this church, if I could figure out a way to make a living there!

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Overwhelmingly so.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
In a well-produced little flyer on the history of the church, I discovered that since 1989 Sunday and daily congregations had increased five-fold, that a choir had been established (and very good it was), and that this relatively small parish was now served by four priests. Facts like that don't fade in memory cells. As I left I was given a copy of the August-September edition of the parish magazine. It was huge – 60 pages of locally generated and church-centred items, complete with artwork, a crossword and cartoons. I will treasure this as a wonderful memory of a magnificent place.
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