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||1187: St Ebbes, Oxford, England
Mystery Worshipper: Euryanthe.
The church: St Ebbes, Oxford, England.
Denomination: Church of England.
The building: From the outside, an unremarkable if large traditional
Anglican building – not something to stop and look at on the Oxford landscape.
Large posters outside the entrance welcome you to the church. On the inside,
the pews have been knocked out and it's been rearranged with a platform
on the north side where the leader stands.
The church: This is a big and lively evangelical Anglican church
that caters particularly to the huge student community in Oxford, although
there are many families and older folk around.
The neighbourhood: St Ebbes is right in the centre of Oxford – immediate
neighbourhood of ancient buildings and dons on bicycles. The church is on
St Ebbe's Street, right by the Westgate shopping centre.
The cast: The service was led by Sam Allberry, student pastor, and
the preacher was the Rev. Vaughan Roberts, rector.
The date & time: Sunday, 9 October 2005, 11.30am.
What was the name of the service?
"The 11.30." The 11.30 service is particularly aimed at students and this
was the first service of the new academic year.
How full was the building?
Absolutely packed with students.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
As we walked in we were handed a service sheet, and then a series of people
wearing welcome badges smilingly ushered us to our seats – lots of
brief greetings. After the notices there was a designated spot to say hello
to someone you'd not spoken to yet, so we exchanged the usual "Where are
you from?" "What college?" "What subject?" Typical freshers
week small talk.
Was your pew comfortable?
It was a nice padded wooden chair – perfectly adequate.
How would you describe the pre-service
Noisy, lots of people still coming in during the last few minutes (including
us). It seemed many people were greeting long-lost friends after the long
university summer vacation.
What were the exact opening words of the
"Hello and welcome to the 11.30 service... [drowned out by noise]... I
think we'll start by singing our first hymn whilst the last few people find
What books did the congregation use during the
The service sheet had all the hymns and the confession written on it. We
also had a notice sheet with a space to write sermon notes. There were New
International Version Bibles in the pews, which Father Roberts encouraged
everyone to refer to frequently during the sermon.
What musical instruments were played?
From what I could hear... keyboard, guitar, bass, drums, trumpet.
Did anything distract you?
To be honest, this was a pretty focussed service, but I distracted myself
by searching the congregation for familiar faces. Also, I was struggling
to try to balance the Bible and sermon notes on my lap and kept dropping
things – a bit embarrassing!
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or
"Hearty" is the word that springs to mind. Primarily the classic evangelical
hymns, e.g. "Holy Holy Holy" and "And can it be", led well by the music
group. Between the confession and prayers there were two more songs, modern
this time. Looking around, I spotted the odd hand raised, but most people
were just singing out. A really rousing sound!
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 Father Roberts is an excellent preacher, no doubt about it. It
was an expository sermon, working through the passage verse by verse,
with relevant cultural and practical applications throughout.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon
The passage was Ecclesiastes 2 (the folly of pursuing pleasure to fill emptiness,
which can only be filled by God). The preacher highlighted the three attempts
at finding meaning that the Teacher tries: the pursuit of knowledge and
wisdom, the pursuit of pleasure, and the pursuit of wealth. All three are
found to be meaningless and futile in the face of mortality. In a city like
Oxford, where so many idolise learning, and after the feast of hedonism
known as freshers week, this was a very poignant sermon. Father Roberts
drew attention to the only glimmer of hope in Ecclesiastes – that the Teacher
is a believer in God and that Jesus eventually came and broke through to
us so that we could know God and find meaning and purpose by putting him
at the centre of our lives.
Which part of the service was like being in
After my first week in the secular and hedonistic student culture, the sermon
was a brilliant reminder about what is actually meaningful and worthwhile.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Actually, 45 minutes of sermon is about 10 minutes past my concentration
span. Father Roberts spoke well, but just as he reached the climax of his
sermon about the glimmer of hope, he'd lost me.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I couldn't have got lost if I'd tried. Every time I stood by myself for
more than 10 seconds, a friendly person would come up and introduce him
or herself. Oxford is crawling with freshers at this time of year, and St
Ebbes was obviously geared up to welcome them.
How would you describe the after-service
Student Lunch! £2.50 for a hot meal and squash eaten on laps outside in
the garden (just about warm enough). By this point I had found some people
I knew. There was free dessert for all newcomers and an introduction to
church life. More opportunities to be welcomed. I felt very comprehensively
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 In fact... I probably will. They seem really well geared up for people just like me!
Did the service make you feel glad to be a
Definitely, although I think I'll feel better when I know a few people.
It was good to chat to one or two new people I really made a connection
with, though. Quite exciting really.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The singing. Great to be surrounded by loads of young people declaring God's holiness and goodness in the words that have been sung by so many people down the years.
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