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615: The University Chaplaincy, University of East Anglia, Norwich, England
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The University Chaplaincy, University of East Anglia, Norwich, England.
Mystery Worshipper: Requiem.
The church: The University Chaplaincy, University of East Anglia, Norwich, England.
Denomination: Anglican.
The building: The chaplaincy is a building of extraordinary ugliness, a depressing grey concrete block in the centre of the university. Inside, however, it's remarkably pleasant. Downstairs are the chaplains' offices, the cleanest toilets on-campus and a welcoming coffee room with a decent selection of books at one end. Upstairs is the chapel – a square room decorated in restful shades of cream and pink. Three walls are simply painted breeze-blocks and the fourth, behind the altar, is hung with slightly tatty beige curtains. The free-standing altar is a simple, Ikea-style pine table. It had been dressed with a lace-trimmed white cloth, two candles and a plain silver chalice and patten. This room is used by several faiths and thus there is no Christian imagery; a cross or crucifix on the altar would have been nice, though.
The church: The chaplaincy caters to the staff and students of the University of East Anglia, near Norwich. At least one chaplain is always around and students of all faiths and none are encouraged to drop in. Several student groups use the chaplaincy as a base, some services are held onsite and it also acts as an information and referral service for local churches. It aims to be ecumenical and my impression is that it by and large succeeds. Certainly Christian groups predominate (and of these the Christian Union seems the most active) but there are notices up for the Jewish and Muslim communities, too.
The neighbourhood: The chaplaincy is set right in the heart of the university. This is a campus university, on the outskirts of town, and at this time of year it's full of freshers just finding their feet. University life centres around the square. The Union building is on one side and the chaplaincy on the other. It couldn't have a more prominent location.
The cast: Canon Dr Timothy Gouldstone.
What was the name of the service?
Anglican communion.

How full was the building?
There was a grand total of four of us, in a space that has seats for about 50. Apparently that's four times as many as had shown the previous week.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
No. I was the second congregant to arrive, and the first didn't seem to notice me enter. It didn't feel unwelcoming. It was an unthreatening space in which I could just sit and be.

Was your pew comfortable?
A very comfortable, squidgy chair upholstered in pepto-abysmal pink. The fabric was patterned with tiny chevrons – migraine-inducing if you peer too intently. The chairs were set at that awkward distance where sitting next to someone invades their space, but leaving an empty seat feels distant. Fortunately, with a congregation of four, there was plenty of space for us all to spread!

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quiet and contemplative. I was conscious of the stresses and concerns of the morning lifting.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
A double-sided sheet of A4 printed from the Common Worship CD-ROM. The responses were printed but the text of the Eucharistic prayer was not. It was more than adequate and definitely easier than fumbling through multiple books.

What musical instruments were played?
None. We didn't sing for which I, for one, was profoundly grateful. I'm a tentative and self-conscious singer at the best of times, and the congregation would have been too small for my voice to get lost in.

Did anything distract you?
Two tall, narrow windows look out over the square that, in fine weather, is the main mingling point on the campus. It's great that the chaplaincy is in such a central position but it's very easy to let your mind wander into people-watching.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was plain and simple; utterly tat-free, pared to the bones Anglican liturgy. The text was straight Common Worship with no frills added; I followed the sheet and was only slightly disconcerted when (for no obvious reason) we skipped the prayer of humble access. Tim was his own server, led the intercessions and read both readings. Perhaps later in the term he'll build up a cohort of volunteers willing to take on those roles. I was pleasantly surprised to see real bread actually being broken (sometimes it's easier to believe in the real presence than to recognise those wafers as bread) but was disappointed with the nastiness of the cheap white wine.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
4 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
6 – Tim comes over as being very much a scholar and an academic and, unfortunately, he preaches as if lecturing. It was dry and unexciting. He's much more interesting and personable in conversation.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
I'd just escaped a long and very boring modern history lecture and the preaching style was too close to that. I vaguely remember references to Job and the latest Orange phone slogan, but I never really grasped the connection between the two.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
For me, liturgy is a cornerstone of my mostly wavering faith. To be able to step out of the competitiveness of academia and just sit and let the timelessness of the liturgy support me for a while is invaluable. To hear myself consciously saying the words helps me, hard as it often is, to hang onto belief. Doing that on a Wednesday, in the middle of the working day, truly models faith as a part of life rather than something that's just reserved for Sundays.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Tim lost the Gospel reading! He'd failed to bookmark the correct spot. He flicked forward... back... forward again before finally flipping back to the right page. For one distinctly awkward moment I wondered if he would abandon the hunt and skip the Gospel entirely.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
There was no opportunity to look lost. Tim came over and, as a group, we chatted briefly before heading off to other commitments.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
The chaplaincy serves the cheapest coffee on campus. There's a decent selection of tea, coffee and some herbal offering but there's a decided shortage on the biscuit front. It's fair-trade, comes in real mugs and, best of all, is only 30p a cup. You are, however, expected to do your own washing-up.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – Unfortunately I'm unlikely to be able to return to this service, due to timetabling clashes. The chaplaincy has already become my favourite place to collapse with a cup of tea and a book between lectures, and I intend to drop in to some of the other services.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. Sometimes it's possible to experience a great deal of peace and tranquillity just by sitting quietly and receiving. That shouldn't be all church is but, right then, it was what I needed.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
Tim, robed in cassock, surplice and green stole, with brown trainers poking out incongruously beneath.
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