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1136: New Apostolic, Romford, Essex, England
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New Apostolic, Romford, Essex, England
Mystery Worshipper: Mark Wuntoo.
The church: New Apostolic, Romford, Essex, England.
Denomination: New Apostolic Church.
The building: A rented hall, prefabricated and rather shabby but with its own car park. The hall is almost hidden behind two large advertising hoardings. I was told that the present bishop favours the hiring of halls rather than the purchase of proper church buildings. The hall was plain and stark, furnished only with plastic chairs and a small table on which rested a covered silver ciborium holding the communion wafers. The table bore no resemblance to a traditional altar. The only Christian symbol I could see was a cross on the table and another on the wall.
The church: The New Apostolic Church claims about 11 million members worldwide, many in Europe and Southern Africa. The present congregation seemed drawn from a wide area. The worshipers were multi-ethnic and mostly middle-aged, with a couple of children, a few teenagers, and one or two elderly people. A staff of six priests and six deacons – all classed as ministers – serve a congregation of about 60. There was no indication that they involve themselves in anything other than their own affairs. There was no mention of a social programme and there were no prayers of intercession for others. I gather that the denomination is reassessing its doctrines and practices and is seeking to become more relevant to different cultures.
The neighbourhood: Romford is a market town situated in the old county of Essex, but now administered as part of the London borough of Havering. The area is dominated by large out-of-town shops and smaller retail outlets. Next door is a large YMCA community centre.
The cast: Priest Cedric was assisted by other ministers.
What was the name of the service?
Divine Service.

How full was the building?
About 35 people filled half the space. All of the men were dressed in black suits, white shirts, black ties and black shoes. I had expected conservative dress but was surprised nonetheless at so much uniformity. The priest said something to the effect that our numbers were augmented by thousands who had passed on.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes, a couple of men at the door greeted me warmly, athough they obviously were a bit surprised to see a visitor. Once inside the hall, I was welcomed by a large number of people who said they were pleased to see me.

Was your pew comfortable?
he chairs were the usual plastic items found in community buildings – hence rather uncomfortable.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quiet, with a buzz of people welcoming one another, perhaps a bit formally.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
No words were spoken. The organ played a chord at which we all stood and began singing the opening hymn.

What books did the congregation use during the service?
Their own hymnal. Looking through the index, I only recognised one hymn. All hymns were translated from the German, which may have accounted for the ingenious way that the congregation fitted the short lines of words into long lines of music in the first hymn. No Bibles were evident either on the table at the door or in the hands of members of the congregation.

What musical instruments were played?
A teenage girl played an electronic keyboard, although it was very obvious that she struggled and felt embarrassed. There were five short choir pieces but only two congregational hymns.

Did anything distract you?
Someone who I think might be called an acolyte in other denominations sat with hands clasped, looking in turns serious or pious or miserable. His gloomy demeanour rubbed off on me just a little.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was what you could call a choir-sermon appreciation sandwich. Nothing like anything I've experienced before. Everything was rigidly structured and timed almost as if with a stopwatch: 10.30 congregational hymn and call to worship;10.45 sermonette; 11.00 choir piece; 11.05 sermon appreciation and explanation; 11.10 choir item; and so on. Each time the choir sang, it was announced that they would "serve us" and "prepare us" for the next speaker. Before communion (bread only, although the priest recited a prayer of thanksgiving for the bread and wine), the Lord's Prayer was read in a very strange style – short phrases punctuated by long pauses. The service concluded with a benediction.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
19 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
4 – He must have addressed the congregation as "brothers and sisters" a thousand times.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
In this Advent season, let us prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ. Advent is a time for appraisal. Let us shine in a dark world. We are part of the Church, a light set on a hill. God forgives and saves us. Let us be holy.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The cakes afterwards and the friendship.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The worship was, on the whole, dull. The service felt as if it were being done by rote. People stood at pre-determined times, for pre-determined items. Every sermon or sermonette ended with an Amen, which the people then parrotted. There was liberal use of jargon and phrases which were obviously familiar to the congregation but not to this visitor. I had no sense that anyone was enthusiastic about their faith. On the other hand, they certainly enjoyed meeting in fellowship afterwards over refreshments.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Various people chatted with me. I asked lots of questions, all of which were answered politely and at length. When I made a move toward the door, a lovely lady said, "I hope you're not going before having a cup of tea." I didn't!

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Ordinary tea and coffee, but with a great variety of nice cakes and biscuits.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
1 – Much too dour and stark for me. Also, I had heard about their dress code and so had put on a tie, which I hardly ever do. But a suit? I just couldn't! I have to force myself to don one even for a funeral! And I don't own a black suit.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
I hardly had time to think about it, I was so busy trying to figure out what was going on and to understand it all. On the other hand, the men all looked so serious, almost like clones of one another. This all makes me sad.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
Worshipping with so many "men in black."
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