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  1217: St Margaret's, Barking, Essex, England

St Margaret's, Barking, Essex, England

Mystery Worshipper: Mystery Librarian.
The church: St Margaret's, North Street, Barking, Essex, England.
Denomination: Church of England.
The building: An ancient and historic parish church built near the ruins of Barking Abbey, one of England's major religious communities before the dissolution of the monasteries. The earliest part of the building is the chancel built in King John's reign and parts of the south wall and the north arcade also date from the 1200s. The Curfew Tower was built in the late 1400s and the rest of the church was finished in the 1600s. The church contains visual reminders of Barking's unlikely history as a fishing village and there is also a memorial to Sir Crispin Gascoigne, a one-time Lord Mayor of London and an ancestor of Bamber Gascoigne, the original presenter of British TV's quiz show, University Challenge.
The church: The church claims large Sunday congregations of up to 400 worshippers and the current church programme provides details of a women's fellowship, confirmation classes and a coming conference on Christian faith in the workplace. The church is also rich in history and one of its claims to fame is that the explorer Captain Cook was married there. Forty years ago the present writer took Big Chief I-SPY, the author of the popular children's I-SPY books, to visit the church and this led to several columns in the Daily Mail's I-SPY series.
The neighbourhood: The church is very much an oasis of medieval calm in a busy shopping area. It is in the "downmarket" end of Barking's shopping district, although also in close proximity to the recently refurbished Broadway Theatre. There are several nearby pubs including the "Captain Cook". .
The cast: The service was led by the Rev. Jonathan Evens, curate of the church, and the preacher was the Rev. Steve Wild, a lecturer at Cliff College and national Director of Evangelism for the Methodist Church. As this was an ecumenical service for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, several unidentified members of local churches also took part – e.g. by carrying such objects as a cross, a candle and a Bible to the front of the church.
The date & time: Thursday 19th January 2006, from 8.00pm.

What was the name of the service?
Christians Together in Barking Unity Service.

How full was the building?
The service was well attended with, I would guess, 100+ in the congregation, though there would have been room for a good few more.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
When I arrived, I was asked if I would mind sharing my order of service with another member of the congregation, as they were running out of copies.

Was your pew comfortable?
Not particularly. It was a hard wooden pew which seemed to get harder as the service progressed.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Fairy quiet and reverential. There were certainly no major disturbances.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good evening everyone. Can I give you a very special welcome?"

What books did the congregation use during the service?
Complete Mission Praise plus printed order of service and prayer notes.

What musical instruments were played?
Church organ.

Did anything distract you?
There was a bit of feedback from the public address system at the beginning of the service. I was also vaguely distracted by the church bells which, inexplicably, continued to ring throughout much of the service.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The worship was fairly formal, though it included one of two modern-ish worship songs, such as Graham Kendrick's "Shine, Jesus Shine". A few people started clapping and raising their arms towards the end, but the overall atmosphere was restrained and far from "happy clappy".

Exactly how long was the sermon?
30 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – The preacher was very enthusiastic about his subject matter, which helped to inspire the congregation. However, I suspect his style might become a little irritating if one heard him preach too often.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The official theme of the service, based on Matthew chapter 18, was forgiveness and the need to sort out differences and disagreements within the Christian community. However, the preacher soon moved on to the need for the church to be flexible and culturally relevant in a fast-changing 21st century society. He praised the so-called "liquid church" and stressed the need for new forms of church life. He gave the example of a church that has been formed among the employees of a pie factory!

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The chance to meet and share worship with Christians from a wide variety of denominations and traditions within the Barking area and to take part in joint prayer.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The rather embarrassing beginning to the sermon, in which the preacher showed us how he uses ventriloquists' dummies when he works as an evangelist. We were treated to the spectacle of Clarence and Horace the frogs singing Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World". The whole episode showed us that the speaker would never have made it as a professional ventriloquist – you could see his lips move!

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
One of two people spoke to me, although they were mainly people I already knew from other local churches. One or two people also engaged me in conversation as I looked at the church's photographic exhibition on the history of Barking.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
No refreshments were served, but those who did not have to rush away were encouraged to stay and inspect the photographic exhibition mentioned above and to watch a short film on Barking's history.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – My usual place of worship is a nearby Baptist church, but I am certainly attracted by Anglican churches such as St. Margaret's with their emphasis on history and their tangible links with Christian worshippers across the centuries.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, it was good to take part in a service with such a diverse collection of Christians and to have an alternative to the disputes and disagreements that sometimes mar the Christian community.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
I hate to admit this, but probably the singing frogs, for better or worse!
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