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981: Wanstead United Reformed, Wanstead, London, England
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Wanstead United Reformed, Wanstead, London, England
Mystery Worshipper: Mark Wuntoo.
The church: Wanstead United Reformed, Wanstead, London.
Denomination: United Reformed Church.
The building: A visitor would be forgiven for thinking that this church belongs to the Anglicans, since in the 19th century it did, although it was located several miles away on the site that is now Kings Cross railway station. The building was sold and moved stone by stone to Wanstead, where it became a Congregational church. The present, slightly shortened version of the original features stone pillars, a tall steeple and a high-ceilinged worship area. Several ancillary rooms and halls adjoin.
The church: The majority of the congregation were elderly ladies; there were smaller numbers of younger people and some men. The church magazine states that some members are heavily involved in issues of justice and social action, whilst others occupy themselves with youth organisations, fair trade, Christian Aid and asylum seekers, as well as prayer and fellowship groups and social events. The congregation also supports the local night shelter for homeless people and the World Development Movement, an organisation dedicated to fighting poverty.
The neighbourhood: This town centre church is situated just off a busy main road, amongst fairly affluent homes, on the outskirts of Greater London and the edge of Epping Forest.
The cast: The preacher was Dr Malcolm Haslett, a member of the church and lay preacher. Isla Walker gave the Scripture readings and led the intercessions.
What was the name of the service?
Sunday morning service.

How full was the building?
There were about 70 people present, filling about a quarter of the seats.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
A woman bade me good morning and shook my hand as I entered the vestibule, but I had to find my own hymn book and service sheet.

Was your pew comfortable?
It was bearable – a wooden pew with a long padded cushion. It seated five people, although I had it to myself and so could stretch and turn as I wished.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
It was fairly quiet and reverential – certainly nothing interfered with prayerful preparation for worship.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"We extend a warm welcome to everyone worshipping with us this morning."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
Rejoice and Sing hymn book. The three Bible passages were printed on the service sheet, as was the order of service.

What musical instruments were played?
A three manual pipe organ with foot pedals, although the organist did not use her feet, and thus I missed the depth of sound which I am sure the instrument is capable of producing.

Did anything distract you?
There were a number of large patches of flaking paint on several of the walls, which seemed out of place amid the plain attractiveness of the Wanstead area.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was a straight hymn-sandwich. The leader was thoroughly modern and mildly provocative, and I was surprised that he did not make use of an overhead projector.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
28 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – Dr Haslett mounted the high pulpit to deliver the sermon, something I have not observed for a very long time – it seemed a bit old-fashioned to me. He was inclined to drop his voice at the end of sentences, which made it a little difficult to hear everything he said. He was quite serious in his presentation – perhaps a slightly more relaxed presentation would have made it easier for some people to receive what he had to say. He interacted with both adults and children and he called people by their Christian names.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Nicodemus, as a Pharisee, was a searcher after truth. Just as Jesus mixed with the despised, the outcast, the sick and the immoral, so his followers should do likewise. We should engage with and learn from people with all sorts of opinions, especially if they are critical of the Church. We should "judge not, that we be not judged." Dr Haslett referred to the writings of Philip Pullman to suggest that we should read such books even though they present a picture of the Church which we would hope to be inaccurate and misleading. This will help us look at ourselves honestly.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The lector, Isla Walker, read the Scriptures with great clarity, understanding and expression, thus bringing the Gospel to life.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
There was some feedback on the public address system during the sermon, which for me is unacceptable and usually remediable. Also, some of the hymn sandwich consisted of sermonettes telling us what to believe and what to do about injustice; I did not appreciate these.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I stood for some minutes at the end of my pew. Although several people passed by, only one woman seemed to notice me. Even a small terrier dog rushed past, wagging its tail furiously, without so much as a yap in my direction. The woman who saw me said, "Nice to see you again," although this was my first visit. On the other hand, when I moved to the rear of the worship area and after I had approached one person, a number of people spoke to me and I had several interesting conversations. I told the preacher how much I had enjoyed his sermon, and this led to a discussion of how various members of the congregation might interpret it in light of their interests.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Expensive! Together with a home-made cake it cost a pound.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 – on the basis of my understanding that the church has decided to invest in multi-media equipment. I would be even more attracted if the congregation had a wider age range. The church is also reviewing its work with children and young people and its relations with two local Methodist churches. So it could be an exciting church to join.
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