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694: St Martin's, Wolverhampton, England
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St. Martin's, Wolverhampton
Mystery Worshipper: Rupert the Bear.
The church: St Martin's, Dixon Street, Wolverhampton, England.
Denomination: Church of England.
The building: The building is a impressively huge brick-built structure designed by Twentymans architects of Wolverhampton and erected in 1939. The style is known as "power station style", for obvious reasons. There is a lovely little three-arch "cloister" connecting the church building to the vicarage (not visible in the photo). Twentymans were responsible for many other buildings of similar style in the city around the middle of the 20th century, including St Andrew's, Whitmore Reans, which is also well worth a visit. Inside St Martin's, the space is similarly huge and impressive, almost cathedral-like in proportion, with a clerestory and very high roof. The decor I can ony describe as "minimalist" – bare, white-painted walls add to the light, spacious, uncluttered feeling of the building.
The church: The church is a Forward in Faith church (Forward in Faith is a movement opposed to the ordination of women as priests or bishops), linked with another on the other side of the city (St Stephen's).
The neighbourhood: You wouldn't know it from the photo, but the church is actually set in the middle of a large council estate on the south-eastern side of the city, contemporary with the church building.
The cast: The parish is lucky to have two priests – Fr. John Oakes, who presided, and Fr. Maurice Jeavons, SSC.
What was the name of the service?
9.15am Sung Mass.

How full was the building?
There were around 30 souls in a building that can easily seat 200 or more.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
I arrived about a minute before the service started, and was greeted with a "good morning" from a gentleman who handed me the bumf and books for the service.

Was your pew comfortable?
Serried ranks of screwed-together wooden chairs rather than pews. I noticed no discomfort.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The organ was quietly playing and people were talking in hushed whispers – not so loud as to be disturbing to those who wanted to pray.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Let us pray" – sung on a monotone, followed by the entrance antiphon.

What books did the congregation use during the service?
Hymns Ancient and Modern New Standard, an "in-house" mass booklet and "The Redemptorist mass leaflet" which contained the readings, psalms, etc. The mass text itself appeared to be from the Roman Missal, but I may be wrong.

What musical instruments were played?
Organ, which I think was electronic, but it did a very good imitation of a pipe organ. No organ pipes were visible anywhere.

Did anything distract you?
The gentleman behind me singing the hymns and speaking the prayers almost a line ahead of anyone else – more about this later.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
This is difficult to answer! The liturgy was high, with smells and bells in all the right places, as you would expect from a Forward in Faith church, but the atmosphere of the service was completely relaxed and anything but stiff upper lip. They got the balance absolutely right. During the peace, there was much hand-shaking and kissing, and wandering about, but then the service went on with the serious ceremony of the mass, and nothing seemed out of place.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
10 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – The sermon was preached by Fr. John Oakes, who had a lovely, fruity voice! Clear and concise, with no faffing or padding – just getting the message across.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The sermon was based on the Gospel reading (Mark 2:18-22), where people asked why Jesus' disciples weren't fasting while those of the Pharisees and John were. Our preacher spoke about the usefulness of fasting during Lent, especially on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, to show our fidelity to God. He also talked about Lent as not just giving something up for 40 days, but setting down "rules for life" which can be carried on after Lent and throughout one's life. I've been in this game a few years now, having sung in a parish church choir, boy and man, since 1975, and I must have heard thousands of sermons in that time, so it takes a lot to get my attention! This particular sermon did just that, so the guy must have been pretty good.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
I think it would have to be the way they balanced the ceremony of the liturgy with the friendliness and relaxedness of the service – I don't think I've seen this brought off as well anywhere else.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The acoustics in this place are absolutely huge! If the building was full to bursting, this would probably not be a problem, but with only 30 people dotted around the building, it was almost impossible for everyone to keep together in the hymns and prayers. The poor guy behind me was almost a line ahead at one point in a hymn, and I had to keep shutting up just to work out where I was supposed to be. In the end I just stopped singing and listened.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
After listening to the organ voluntary (a very competently played piece of Bach) I moved to the back of the church and hung around. Very soon I was collared by a robed gentleman, who asked where I was from. Having explained that I had just moved into the area, he proceeded to tell me some of the history of the building, and pointed out various features of the church. Afterwards I was also approached by the church warden. All in all it seems to be a very friendly place.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
A nice cup of black-country strength tea, in a cup and saucer (I just hate those polystyrene cups you get at most places these days!), with biccies.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 – I would definitely make this my regular church (it is the closest one to my house) based on the way they conduct the service, if I didn't have commitments elsewhere. But I would have problems with the fact that it is a Forward in Faith church.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Absolutely, yes.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
I would have to say the huge scale of the place and the space.
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