|692: Walmer Baptist, Walmer, Kent, England|
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Mystery Worshipper: Chameleon.
The church: Walmer Baptist, Walmer, England.
The building: This is an imposing red brick building set back slightly from the main road. Cars were parked on either side of the road and I couldn't see any car park. The foyer is mainly dark wood, making the room seem smaller than the outside suggests. Entering through a door with a stained glass panel, I briefly fought with a faded blue-grey velvet curtain, before reaching the main body of the church. This was in utter contrast to the foyer faintly pink plastered walls broken up by Gothic arched stained glass windows, and a few brightly coloured cloth banners. The walls soared upwards, and were topped by an arched teak-coloured wooden roof, with various cross beams, as well as support beams from the walls to the point of the arch. Altogether it looked like the keel of a ship had been turned upside-down and used to cover the church.
The neighbourhood: Walmer is part of the conurbation of Deal, which used to be a fishing town, so perhaps they had used a ship to roof the church. Now it's simply a struggling town, composed variously of retirees, those on benefits, or workers in either the port of Dover or a large pharmaceutical company 10 miles away. The church is positioned on one of the two main roads out, which rather says it all.
The cast: As this was a united service, six ministers and priests from across the town led different parts of the service. The leader was Rev. Sean Carter, and the preacher was Dr Nigel Wright.
What was the name of the service?
Deal and Area Churches Together United Service.
How full was the building?
Almost bursting at the seams, with 400 or so people there. Glancing round the congregation I noticed mainly white or grey hair. I was sat in a corner at the back, under a balcony which may or may not have been full.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes. As I ran up the steps (I was two minutes late), I was greeted with a handshake by one of the two men standing inside the foyer. He handed me a programme and told me not to worry because they had only just started. He pointed me towards a door, and suggested there were some seats left on the left-hand side.
Was your pew comfortable?
It was a hard wooden affair, without the benefit of either cushions or carpeting to make it even remotely comfortable. Luckily we were up and down like jack-in-the-boxes (a feature I have come to associate with the united services) until the sermon, so this wasn't a problem earlier on. By the end of the sermon, however, I was shifting uncomfortably, and wishing the preacher would finish.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Unfortunately, I was late. As I arrived, the members of the congregation were quietly listening to the opening words, and coughing every three minutes. The regular coughing continued throughout the service.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"I'd like to share with you a verse from Scripture." He shared, then welcomed us all.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
A service sheet (endearingly called a programme), with an announcement sheet tucked inside. All the words of the songs were inside the programme, and also displayed by an overhead projector, mostly in a readable font size.
What musical instruments were played?
We were treated to an electrified violin, accompanied by an (unmiked) clarinet and an electric piano. The violin sounded untuned and wailed like a banshee through the songs. It hit wince-inducing levels at various points in the music.
Did anything distract you?
In the chancel, directly behind the lectern, was a large, solid-looking, cylindrical, blue object. I wondered what it was: a tombola? A cannon? The preacher referred to it as Apollo 9. Eventually I found out it was a heater for the church, which they couldn't turn on because it made too much noise. Why bother having it there, was my reaction. Then the acoustics of the building were such that during the corporate prayers, our words, were transmuted into a dull rumble. That is, apart from the ends of sentences; as the back were several words behind the front, the last few words of each section rang out crystal clear. Finally, just before the sermon, the leader pointed to a door just beside the chancel, and stated that the toilets were through there. I began racking my brains, trying to remember whether anyone had disappeared through it previously, and came to the conclusion that if someone had, others definitely wouldn't now that everyone knew where it led.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
There were five songs, each in a different style. First up was "Shine Jesus shine" done fairly slowly. A few of the congregation half-heartedly clapped out of time when we hit "shine on me, shine on me". The second song was a lot more jazzed up, with strong congregational singing. The third marked a real low point in the service, as we droned through two verses, then struggled to remember what we had been instructed to sing as the third. In direct contrast, the fourth song brought the only heavenly moment, just before the sermon. Unfortunately the final song appeared to be too difficult for the congregation to grasp; they pre-empted the chorus every time, leading to a ricochet of "here"s bouncing round the building.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 He stood behind the lectern, shifting from foot to foot. He was amusing, using gentle mockery of both himself, and us, to draw us into his sermon.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
I admired our pracher's audacity for taking a completely different part of the Bible from the reading as his text: Matthew 16:18-19. His four key points were that the church has one body, one foundation, one hope and one task. All Christians must stick together, for the glory of God, which exists within us both individually as living stones, and collectively as the one temple where God dwells. We are built on a foundation of people who are prepared to confess Christ and give their all for him. Our common hope is that the gates of Hades will not prevail against us the church cannot ultimately fail, though it may go through times of withering as well as flourishing. Finally, we have a common task; we are given the keys to heaven, so we can open the door that others might step through and meet with Christ.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Singing "The Church's one foundation", and being aware that many different denominations were represented in the service. The ministers meet up regularly, and every so often a united service is held, which reminds us that we are one church, though we exist in many shapes, forms and sizes.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The intense cold that had me (and half the congregation I could hear the dentures rattling!) shivering by the time the sermon came round. Escaping afterwards, outside actually felt warmer. Then there was the singing: we droned, "In thy church, Lord, be glorified" but I don't think he was. Finally the electric violin obviously had dubious parentage being a cross between screeching bagpipes, and dragging fingers down a chalkboard. The music it murdered as the offering bags were handed round had me shuddering, with jaw clenched, and fingers discretely in my ears.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Not a lot. We were blessed and sent out, and then the service ended. A few people sought out other members of their own congregations to say hello to, but the majority made for the exit. I stepped out into the aisle and got caught in the tide, swept into the foyer. There we all stopped, because they only had a single door open, and were trying to funnel 200 people through while everyone shook hands with the welcomers. I fought my way back into the church (receiving dirty looks along the way), just so I could breathe without being crushed to death.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none.
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
3 It was too cold, the music was mostly dire, and the pews were too hard. They all combined to draw my attention away from God. On the plus side, it was a good, albeit long, sermon.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
It made me glad that many of the churches in the town are prepared to share worship (if that was worship), and to do more than pay lip service to the idea that we are all part of the body of Christ. But did it make me personally glad to be a Christian? No, as it drew me away from God rather than towards him.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The breathy fervence of the blonde woman leading prayers for the church locally, nationally and internationally. She sounded almost eager as she prayed about those who were suffering, or even martyred for their faith.