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608: St Nicholas, Iford, East Sussex, England
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St Nicholas, Iford, East Sussex, England.
Mystery Worshipper: Requiem.
The church: St Nicholas, Iford, East Sussex, England.
Denomination: Church of England.
The building: The parish magazine proudly claims that this church is 900 years old and, from the interior, I can well believe it. It's a small flint and stone building with the interior walls whitewashed in a mixture of soft cream shades. The roof is just stunning – ancient oak beams spanning a high triangular roof-space. The church is divided into two distinct chambers, altar in one, congregation in the other: To see the altar you have to peer through the carved round stone arches of the bell-tower. The walls are pierced with what I would guess to be Victorian stained glass; intricate and detailed in an array of rich jewel colours. A mass of tall candles combined with sensitive spotlighting from the rafters to create a warm, light-filled space.
The neighbourhood: The parishes of Iford, Rodmell and Kingston are connected and, I think, share one priest, with services alternating between the three churches. The villages are similar: small, quaint, picturesque communities nestling into the South Downs. These days the residents are a mixture of local farmers, commuters to London, professionals and lecturers at the local university. Members of the congregation greeted each other warmly, smiled and chatted, suggesting that this is a friendly and supportive community.
The cast: Rev. Geoff Daw.
What was the name of the service?
Midnight communion.

How full was the building?
The church was packed to bursting. All the pews were jammed full and an extra fold out plastic chair had been placed at the end of each pew. I would guess 120 souls were there. They were mostly over 60 but there was a small sprinkling of children and young adults.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
The lady giving out the hymnbooks was friendly enough, asking if we would mind sharing as at this service they often have to rake books back from the congregation to supply the latecomers.

Was your pew comfortable?
They were fairly standard pseudo-Victorian pews in stained pine. They were comfortable enough, although the shelf for hymnbooks was a little on the small side. The blue plastic leatherette kneelers were embarrassingly squeaky.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The church was filled with a friendly sense of anticipation. An organist played gently behind us, but he was largely ignored as the congregation chatted quietly to each other. In the last few minutes before the service his rather somnolent playing clashed discordantly with the insistent but repetitive ringing of the bells.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Welcome to our midnight communion."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
Hymns Ancient and Modern and a rather professional-looking printed service booklet. This latter is obviously used all year round as it contained the prefaces for all seasons. This confused my non-churchgoing companion, who was baffled about which bit he was meant to read next.

What musical instruments were played?
A 1960's organ of extraordinary ugliness was played with competence rather than flair.

Did anything distract you?
The hymns were played rather slower than I would have liked. Carols should be joyful. A chap two pews back obviously agreed. He expressed his disapproval by singing at his own speed, getting progressively further ahead of the beat during each verse, then rejoining us for the first word of the next. This wouldn't have been so entertaining if he had sung quietly, but no. His voice was loud, flat and nasal, and had me in stitches.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was very BCP; very traditional. We spent much of the service on our knees whilst the priest declaimed in Elizabethan english, and communion was received kneeling. Curiously, the elements of the service were in a very different order from that which I'm used to. The confession and absolution, for example, were tucked immediately before the consecration instead of at the beginning of the service. The strange, double-chambered layout made the distinction between the Word and the Sacrament very clear: The priest was with us to begin with, and then moved into the next room for the Eucharistic Prayer. This left me feeling somewhat detached from the consecration. However, in spite of all that, there was a real sense of sincerity and joy in the worship. It could easily have been terribly staid, museum-piece worship but was redeemed by the genuine warmth and feeling in the Priest's voice.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
4 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – He bounced about the pulpit, gesticulating frantically and emphasising his points with vigourous hand-gestures. He was Tigger incarnate. His enthusiasm was delightful, but I couldn't help wondering if he'd overdosed on caffeine.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
He looked wryly at the full church. "Maybe we should move all services to 11.30pm?" He asked why we had come. Tradition? A sense of otherness seeking expression? Or as a step on a journey? Whatever our reasons, we should not worry about the conflicting details of the gospel accounts of the nativity stories, but instead focus on this: God has been made flesh amongst us.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The Gospel – "In the beginning was the word" – was read with vigour, understanding and a real empathy for the rhythm of the text. I'm not normally a fan of the King James Version, but the reader imbued it with remarkable freshness.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
It's the tat-queen in me coming out, I'm afraid, but I was really looking forward to seeing some stunning gold vestments. Instead, he celebrated in alb and stole. It's just not the same.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Immediately after the service, the priest took up post at the door. It would have been churlish to avoid his hand-shake and "Merry Christmas." We were otherwise ignored. The congregation fell into little groups who chatted amongst themselves, but no-one attempted to talk to us.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
No coffee. No mulled wine. Not even a sniff of a mince-pie.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 – If I didn't live three hours drive away I'd definitely take up the priest's offer to meet and talk theology in the pub. The congregation seemed friendly and I have no doubt I'd soon be welcomed into the community. However BCP and elderly isn't really to my taste; I'd want to check out his other services before committing to this church.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, definitely. The church had housed prayer and song for nigh on a thousand years and we were continuing in that living tradition. There was a real sense of the body of Christ stretching back through the centuries and of that fellowship making worship meaningful and relevant today.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
A butterfly – a rare and precious sight in mid-winter – fluttered in when the door was opened at the end of the service. It danced above the heads of the congregation for a few minutes. What better sign could there be of new life and new hope in darkness?
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