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1085: St Stephen's, Bristol, England
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St Stephen's, Bristol
Mystery Worshipper: Leo.
The church: St Stephen's, Bristol, England.
Denomination: Church of England.
The building: A late 15th century perpendicular building on the site of a 13th century cell of Glastonbury Abbey. The tower and fan-vaulted ceiling are particularly elegant.
The church: Many of the congregation travel from the outskirts of the city and beyond out of loyalty to the church. The building is also used by a Chinese Protestant community and a Philipino Christian church, as well as by groups like Alcoholics Anonymous. It has links with the Merchant Venturers and a bellringers' society.
The neighbourhood: Bristol is the largest city in southwest England. Its position on the rivers Frome and Avon make it an ideal location for a port. Although not without rivals, it was second only to London for many years in the amount of trade which passed through it, including the slave trade in times past. The church is set in the middle of modern Bristol's thriving city centre, where business people rush about by day and young people congregate around the many nearby clubs by night.
The cast: The Rev. Des Tucker.
What was the name of the service?
Sung Eucharist.

How full was the building?
Sixteen people rattled around a largely empty building. These were augmented by a choir of seventeen people.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
The priest spotted me and apologised for the lack of a normal pew leaflet because somebody had dropped the church's computer in an attempt to steal it.

Was your pew comfortable?
Yes, to sit in but not to kneel in. The kneeler was too high and the back of the pew extended to the floor, leaving nowhere to put one's legs and feet whilst kneeling.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quietish, with occasional welcoming and catching up on gossip.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
A home-made order for the eucharist based on Common Worship and Hymns Ancient and Modern, New Standard.

What musical instruments were played?

Did anything distract you?
A little girl was playing with a fairly noisy toy car. This prompted me to wonder about how many young people this church could attract if it were willing to offer alternative styles of worship.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Formal – trying to do a Victorian format of service with choir and organ.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
Five minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
5 – Homely and very sincere. My low mark is based primarily on a sense of annoyance. I have known the preacher for several years and can vouch that he is sincere and can preach much better, but he is retired and has several other responsibilities; preparing sermons takes time. The Church of England is "managing decline" by using retired clergy, assuming that they can fill a gap, whereas there needs to be more of a sense of mission.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
As spring arrives and daylight increases, we are prompted to do spring cleaning. Lent should be a time for sorting out our lives.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
A very competent choir sang many parts of the service on its own.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The realisation that the Church of England is offering traditional worship of God to congregations who like that sort of thing, at a time when there is a thirst for spirituality but contempt or indifference for starchy Christians. This church is keeping a traditional presence in the midst of a city centre where, in my opinion, it needs to assess its potential for mission amongst the clubbers. Should the retired priest act as chaplain to a small congregation, or are they prepared to take risks and be "church" in a different, more evangelistic way? I believe there is little future for churches who are not able to take risks.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I was asked whether I wanted coffee or tea. The priest introduced me to somebody who spoke briefly but was preoccupied with selling tickets for a function. The people sat at tables, which was very cosy for those who belonged but not very inviting to newcomers.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Nothing special.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 – I would enjoy the choir, but worshiping amid such low numbers would depress me.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
No. It was like being on a sinking ship.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The low numbers.
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