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  1236: St John the Evangelist, Darlington, England

St John the Evangelist, Darlington, England

Mystery Worshipper: Cherokee.
The church: St John the Evangelist, Darlington, England.
Denomination: Church of England.
The building: A large imposing building, built in 1847, with a large square tower, on a hill just outside the city centre. The interior is simple and has been renovated fairly recently. The painted organ pipes and decorative touches behind the altar caught my attention, as did a rather modern set of stations of the cross. Some nice stained glass too.
The church: It seemed to me to be a close-knit congregation with a genuine caring side.
The neighbourhood: Darlington is a market town in the northeast of England, and is the birthplace of railways. The Stockton & Darlington Railway was the world's first steam-worked public railway. The church's environs are typical inner city, with old working class terraces that have been haphazardly renovated, some new flats, and an assortment of shops.
The cast: The vicar, the Rev. Michael Dent, presided. Mrs Dent read the prayers.
The date & time: Sunday, 19 March 2006, 10.30am.

What was the name of the service?
Sung Eucharist.

How full was the building?
Fairly full, and it is a big church.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
The vicar made a point of coming to our pew after we had sat down. He welcomed us, introduced himself, and apologised for not greeting us as we entered (he was deep in conversation). He asked where we were from and what brought us there. The gentleman next to us engaged us likewise. Many people spoke to us during the peace, and the vicar shook everyone's hand then – no mean feat in a fairly large congregation.

Was your pew comfortable?
It was as comfortable as one would expect a pew to be!

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
There was a quiet hum of conversation. The coffee cups were heard being set out at the back. Child choristers were putting on their robes in the pews next to their parents.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning, everyone, and welcome."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
Hymns Ancient and Modern and the church's own communion service booklet. We were also given a copy of Mission Praise though this was not used. The first hymn was bookmarked with the communion booklet, a nice touch!

What musical instruments were played?
Organ only, and it was beautifully and skillfully played.

Did anything distract you?
The plain yet tasteful decor captured my attention. The patterns painted on the organ pipes reminded me of the old canal boat paintwork commonly known as roses and castles. The vicar's Palatinate purple robes, although quite beautiful, also qualify as a distraction.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Pretty much straight-down-the-middle C of E, though certainly not stuffy. Hymns were traditional and all to well known tunes.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
10 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
10 – He was down-to-earth, speaking to us as if we were friends in his living room.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
"If you tear down the temple, I will rebuild it in three days." Jesus is the Temple, and if we lose our faith Jesus will replace it. He explained why there were money changers in the temple and talked about money lenders "ripping people off" (his words).

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The excellent organ music and the vicar's genuine feeling as he prayed. It was clear that he was thinking about what he was saying. Also, on this chilly March morning, the church was warm enough for us to remove our coats.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Near the moment of consecration, the PA system began to crackle and hiss. The vicar, unperturbed, broke off his prayer and said, "This is not divine intervention. Let's switch it off." On a personal level, I never feel comfortable during the peace.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
We weren't allowed to look lost! People descended on us in droves. The vicar thanked us for coming and urged us to return. We spotted a former vicar and his wife from our home city and explored common ground with them. Lots of people wished us well as we left.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Tea and coffee in proper cups with saucers. Coffee was a well-known high-quality instant brand, as good as instant can be, and was hot. Tea was equally nice, and hot too. There were biscuits. A donation was suggested.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
10 – The congregation's warm welcome and the vicar's down-to-earth and friendly manner made us feel part of the church family. The atmosphere was caring and Christian without being pious.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, undoubtedly.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The warm welcome from a large number of people who didn't know us from Adam!
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