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912: St David's, Palmerston North, New Zealand
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St David's, Palmerston North, New Zealand
Mystery Worshipper: Arabella Purity Winterbottom.
The church: St David's, Palmerston North, New Zealand.
Denomination: Presbyterian.
The building: The church looks like a modest community hall both inside and out, although it has some wonderful hangings, made (one suspects) by the minister.
The church: I found the congregation warm and welcoming (see below). That made it pretty wonderful. But in terms of national significance there is nothing special about St David's.
The neighbourhood: Palmerston North is perfectly flat and the tallest building is only five stories high. A wind farm dominates the skyline.
The cast: The service was led by the Rev. Pamela Tankersley. Music was provided by Roy and Jayne Tankersley, with prayers by Bob Skipp.
What was the name of the service?
Morning Worship with Baptism.

How full was the building?
The building seats about 200 and it was full. The relatives of the baby numbered around 70, but since they seemed to be devout folk who knew the hymns, it was a bit difficult to tell who were the usual congregation and who were the relatives.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
I think almost everyone welcomed us! This may have had something to do with the freezing temperature and the paucity of heating – people were huddled around the three heaters until just before the service. They were the friendliest congregation I have ever visited.

Was your pew comfortable?
There were short rows of joined-up seats which were very comfortable. Hymnbooks were in a rather nifty slot between the chairs.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The cold weather was the complete antithesis of the atmosphere in the church. People were chatting and calling to each other and they included visitors in the general cheer. This ceased immediately once the service began.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Let us worship God."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
We had an excellent order of service which contained all the prayers and three of the hymns. With One Voice was used for two hymns. The Bible version was Good News – not usually my cup of tea, but it was satisfactory for the two readings included.

What musical instruments were played?
A very sophisticated Roland keyboard was used to mimic first a tracker organ, then a soupy harmonium. I gather it is new, and it is a vast improvement on the instrument which was used on my only previous visit. The baby's mother, a professional singer, offered a very beautiful Bach aria.

Did anything distract you?
The baby was endlessly distracting but in the nicest possible way. He wanted to get into the font, he wanted to play with the candle, he wanted to go see his grandmother (the minister). The congregation loved him.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The worship was, for want of better words, domestic and sensible. The liturgy was elegant, without any fuss. Everyone was involved and it felt very natural to join in. No hands were waved, no knees were bent. The minister sat in the congregation when anyone else was up front, which gave us a real feeling of her being prepared to encourage the ministry of her congregation.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
5 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 – The minister was down-to-earth and very clear. Because of the occasion she gave only a brief reflection.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The reflection was on Hosea 11:3-9, which talks about the Lord teaching Ephraim to walk. The minister took her newly-baptised grandson and showed the congregation how he was learning to walk, in order to demonstrate just how much a parent supports a child as it learns to walk. A simple message, well delivered.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
It was wonderful to be in a full church where everyone joined in the singing. We were sitting next to an elderly couple and they were belting out the hymns, both new and old. That was the first heavenly thing. The second was the thoughtfulness of the liturgy, which had a real sense of connecting with the community, both visitors and regulars. I talked to a visitor who wasn't a churchgoer, and she said that she quite unexpectedly loved it, that the service made more sense than Christianity ever had before.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Only the lack of heating bothered me, and that was mostly my own fault for not wearing warmer clothes.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Stand around looking lost? I don't think so. At this church you would have more of a problem if you tried to sneak out unnoticed. The minister had the front door covered, and the congregation flooded towards the hall through the back door, taking visitors with them.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
We never got to the after-service refreshments - too many people talked to us. I believe there was coffee, tea, and cake.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
10 – Between the sound theology, the excellent liturgy, and the friendly congregation, we felt totally at home. If only it wasn't two hours drive from where we live.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
It was my first church service for seven months after a painful rift from my own parish. The service made me weep for all the people who never experience this kind of love and cherishing in a church. These are perfectly ordinary people offering a more than ordinary Christianity.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The light in the eyes of the minister and the baby as she took him around to meet everyone. He regarded everyone very gravely while she just grinned. It was lovely.
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