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898: Dursley Tabernacle, Dursley, Gloucestershire, England
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Dursley Tabernacle, Dursley, Gloucestershire, England
Mystery Worshipper: Sea of Tranquility.
The church: Dursley Tabernacle, Dursley, Gloucestershire, England.
Denomination: United Reformed Church.
The building: The chapel was built in 1809 in a faintly neo-classical but also functional style. The exterior is somewhat grimy, and the view of it from the road is partly obscured by new buildings. The plain yet elegant interior has rows of wooden pews downstairs and a gallery above.
The neighbourhood: The church is tucked away just off the High Street, surrounded by a combination of old and new architechure, none of it especially appealing – a mix of retail, light industrial, and leisure sites. Dursley itself is a somewhat sprawling mixture of 18th-19th century properties and late 20th century developments. At the moment, its main claim to fame is that it inspired local author JK Rowling – it is the surname of the very dull aunt and uncle of Harry Potter.
The cast: Rev. Simon Helme.
What was the name of the service?
Family Worship.

How full was the building?
The congregation numbered about 65, in a room with a capacity for about 250 (including the galleries, which were not in use).

Did anyone welcome you personally?
I arrived five minutes late, as did another parishioner, who was very friendly. We chatted in the lobby until an appropriate lull in the service.

Was your pew comfortable?
The pews were of straight, plain hardwood, and very solidly built, with no cushions. By the end of the service my posterior was feeling decidedly sore. There was a narrow bar which could only have been a kneeling rail or a footrest. It did not look very comfortable for kneeling on, and no one did.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
I was late, having struggled to find the church (even though I had an address, clear map, and photographs – Dursley does not believe in street signs, and the church was virtually invisible as I approached from the west). Hence I missed the pre-service...

What were the exact opening words of the service?
... and the opening words.

What books did the congregation use during the service?
Rejoice and Sing, with both words and music editions on offer. This hymnal includes an order of service at the front, which was handy since there was no service sheet. At the end of (nearly) every pew was a Revised English Bible.

What musical instruments were played?
A simple organ, played well.

Did anything distract you?
In general the plainness of the church and the vigour with which the service was conducted gave little reason for wandering attention. However, there was one notable distraction for this visitor: the first reading was Genesis 22, in which Abraham questions God about destroying Sodom if there are innocent people there. The reader, an elderly gentleman with a very clear, strong voice, delivered this in a way I could only feel was deadpan comic. The pauses were worthy of a Radio 4 comedy programme, and the humble yet persistent voice of Abraham could have come from a Monty Python sketch. I smiled and wanted to laugh – but looked quickly round the congregation and could see that no one else found this delivery funny. I did my best to stifle my grin, but it was difficult, and I felt such a tension between the tragic and comic sides of the story that I barely heard the second reading.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Respectful and relaxed. There was a strong participative angle – children were invited up to the front at the beginning of the service to take part in a Lord's Prayer jigsaw, and the rest of the congregation contributed through excellent singing – including sung responses to the prayers.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
18 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
10 – If I could, I'd give the preacher 9.5. He deserves a 10, but he's young and I'm sure will get even better with experience. He had a strong voice, he said sensible, meaningful things and did not waste words. He structured what he said to make his meaning clear and reinforce it, yet did it in a way that sounded entirely natural. He also made good use of gesture (unlike so many good preachers who use only their voices). In fact, the only hint that he is something of a novice was that he used notes.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The perennially popular yet difficult topic of why bad things happen in the world of a good God. Drawing on the story of Abraham and Sodom, he suggested that we have a role to play, participating in God's will and even challenging it. He finished the story of Sodom for us, in which Abraham tragically discovers that despite his efforts, Sodom has indeed been destroyed – and concluded that in the end, in spite of our efforts, we may not understand God's will.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The sermon. Not only was it extremely well delivered, it was also intellectually and emotionally challenging. I felt he was encouraging and guiding us in how we might think for ourselves about this very difficult issue, rather than trying to feed us the answers.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Half an hour after the service my bottom was still sore. But it was worth it.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I was never given a chance to hang around, much less look lost. As soon as the service was over, the person I'd entered with engaged me in a bit more chat, then encouraged me to leave with her. I didn't feel I could hang back without being rude (and anyway the tiny lobby was not designed to be loitered in with the whole congregation streaming out). As we left, she introduced me to the preacher, explaining that I was a visitor, and he gave me a handshake and words of welcome.

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)?
10 – If I lived anywhere near this church, I'd be keen to become a member.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Absolutely. In fact, I felt that the experience helped broaden my thinking as a Christian.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
How to find the church. Should anyone wish to try it, I recommend parking at the leisure centre (which you can't miss), then turning right as you walk out of the car park. Just stick to the pavement, and you'll see the church after you turn the corner.
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