|766: Yate Methodist, Yate, Bristol, England|
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Mystery Worshipper: Sea of Tranquility.
The church: Yate Methodist, Moorland Road, Yate, Bristol, England.
The building: The church resembles a meeting hall as you approach it – only on close inspection is it obviously a place of worship. It is of good modern construction, letting in plenty of light, and maintaining heat well – a plus on a morning when there had been a hard frost. The worship area has a slightly raised dais at the front for the minister and readers. The ceiling is slightly arched but otherwise plain, and in general levels of decoration are low. The exception is a stunning mosaic on the right wall depicting Bible scenes from creation (something that looks like an artist's conception of the Big Bang) to the crucifixion.
The neighbourhood: In 2003, Yate made the list of the top 50 worst towns in the UK. Built in stages since the Second World War to provide housing for growing Bristol industries – and now a refuge for former rural South Gloucestershire populations who can no longer afford rural housing – Yate is monotonous and uninspiring in every way imaginable. The church is set on a side street among houses which are unusual in not all being identical.
The cast: Rev. Ian MacFarlane, a visiting Anglican minister. He is a local preacher, and was invited to speak about his work as a missionary in Ethiopia.
What was the name of the service?
Morning Worship on Special Mission Anniversary Sunday.
How full was the building?
The church holds about 150 people, and was a little over half full.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
At the door I was greeted by a woman who told me which way I should go into the church. In the reception area, I was greeted by another woman who established that I was visiting, obtained books and notices for me, asked what part of the church I'd like to sit in, and introduced me by name to the people next to whom she seated me.
Was your pew comfortable?
The congregation sit on square metal chairs with thick, cushioned seats – comfortable, if a bit narrow.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The members of the congregation seemed cheerful and generally a little chatty, though many sat quietly. There was a certain amount of high-spirited talking from happy children, but generally the atmosphere was informal and quietly convivial.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
A member of the congregation went up to the dais and asked people to join in a moment of silence. She then began the service by saying, "Good morning everyone, and welcome."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Hymns and Prayers and Junior Praise (an Anglican hymnbook). There were also two sheets of notices, but no order of service.
What musical instruments were played?
The only instrument was a small, modern organ, although it was set to sound like a piano for some of the music.
Did anything distract you?
During the first half of the service there were children of all ages scattered through the congregation. The visiting priest gave a talk directed to them about Ethiopia, but at least a few of them could never have heard a word, being too busy with their own entertainments. By halfway through his talk (16 minutes total) he'd lost most of them, and it was becoming difficult at times to attend fully to what he said as they chatted, squealed, and played.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The service was plain, participative, and relaxed. If you imagine a scale from mystical to pragmatic, this church is a long way down the latter end of the axis. There was no reference that I can remember to God or Jesus as spiritual beings. Nor was there talk about faith or the miraculous. Instead the hymns and readings focused on the mundane world and our role in making it a better place. The congregation joined in lustily whenever called upon to speak or sing – although they were not keen on doing the motions to the Junior Praise hymn about the king of the jungle.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
16 minutes. There was also a slide show and talk about the minister's visit to Ethiopia, which also lasted 16 minutes.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
6 He was not a dynamic speaker, but he spoke straight from the heart. He stepped down from the dais occasionally, especially during the slide show and talk, and generally came across as friendly and approachable. By the end of his sermon it was easy to imagine that I knew him. He was, however, somewhat difficult to follow, the structure of his sermon was unclear until the end, and he was not in the habit of repeating himself for clarity.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The preacher, a missionary himself, asked us how we could all be missionaries. He pointed out that most of us will never have the opportunity to do missionary work abroad – so we should look instead to our own neighbourhoods, to people who are not members of our church.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
There was a modern hymn right after the sermon which I had never heard before. It was about bringing relief to people in our own communities. It tied in particularly well with the sermon, and was refreshingly direct in talking about the world as it actually is today.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The preacher's slide show in a light and airy church on a sunny Sunday morning. The pictures were very difficult to see, and to make matters worse, the slide projector was acting up. Our preacher was the sort of person who gives such problems his full attention, so while he was trying to get his slides to change, he wasn't talking. In the silences the congregation (especially the children) grew increasingly restless. It was a great relief when the slides were finished and he simply talked to us.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
One of the people who had greeted me earlier came over to have a chat about where I was from. She then passed me on to another parishioner, who in turn passed me to another – so that when I finally left, I was surprised to see how late the hour was. Sometimes this sort of chatting up of new people can seem a bit fake, but there was none of that here.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Tea and coffee in glass cups with saucers. There was also orange squash for the children, and a good supply of biscuits. A FairTrade stall offered a good selection next to the coffee area.
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 I liked the church very much, and if I lived nearby I would probably join, even though I am not a Methodist. As it is, I will probably go back sometime – I was interested enough that I'd like to hear their regular minister.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Very much so. The emphasis on Christian works and how everyone can contribute made me want, if anything, to be even more Christian.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
Five hymns! Best of all, we finished with "Old One Hundred". I love singing hymns, so it was a real treat.