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  1281: St Mary the Virgin, Ashford, Kent, England

St Mary the Virgin, Ashford, Kent

Mystery Worshipper: St Crispin's Cobler.
The church: St Mary the Virgin, Ashford, Kent, England.
Denomination: Church of England.
The building: Although the church dates largely from the 15th century, parts date back to the 13th century, when an early English church was built to replace earlier Norman or possibly even Saxon buildings. The Domesday Book records at Essetisford a church and priest. The current church with its soaring tower is based upon the 15th century building, although over the centuries there has been extensive widening and enlargement of the nave. The inside is quite spacious, with a gallery that in part dates back to the 17th century when it housed the local grammar school. There are extensive dark wood workings with a magnificent cross suspended high above the rood screen. There is also an exquisitely decorated reredos located behind the high altar.
The church: The parish has an active presence within the town centre. There are a number of groups that use either the church or the adjacent hall during the week. Discussions are currently taking place to explore further use of the church by the local community, possibly through arts based initiatives.
The neighbourhood: Although Ashford at heart is a historic market town, it has undergone immense development in the past few decades. Currently it is the centre of major building development, with local continental links via Channel Tunnel or ferry ports. Consequently many people are now relocating to Ashford. Even though the tower of St Mary the Virgin dominates the Ashford skyline, the church is somewhat tucked away within the town centre and so could be easily overlooked.
The cast: The Rev. Colin Preece was celebrant and preacher. Intercessions were led by Debbie Angrave. The organist was Peter Newell.
The date & time: Sunday, 21 May 2006, Sixth Sunday in Easter, 10.00am.

What was the name of the service?
Family Communion.

How full was the building?
It is a large church, and as the service progressed I realised that it was larger than I had first thought. There were approximately 80 to 100 attending the service, but they were quite spread out. There were numerous children and young people who left en masse at some point in the opening part of the service and returned around the time of the peace.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
A gentleman who had an air of authority opened the door for me and extended a firm handshake, a courteous good morning, and a nod toward the two ladies who were handing out service sheets. He seemed to note that I was a new face but did not engage me with any further words of welcome.

Was your pew comfortable?
In short, no. It was a typical Victorian wooden pew, but the top of the upright was at a perfect height to catch the small of the back. This made sitting for any length of time virtually impossible – a fact that became obvious within the first five minutes. That said, as the service progressed I was able to adjust my posture to a somewhat comfortable position.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Chatty. There was quite a lot of noise – no individual was being particularly noisy but the combined effect was quite distracting. Unfortunately this chatter returned at other parts of the service, including the moments before distribution of communion. Within the church there was a hung a decorated banner with the inscription "You are the place were God speaks." Would anybody be able to hear him, though?

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning and welcome to our worship on the sixth Sunday of our Easter season. We will just wait a moment for a few stragglers."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
On entering we were given three handouts: Easter Communion Service Booklet produced in-house, a hymn sheet, and a notice sheet that also contained the day's readings and set prayers. There were no Bibles or other books in the pews.

What musical instruments were played?
Organ, played rather well. There was also a modest choir of five junior members and five adult members – supplemented by the vicar during the singing of the anthem.

Did anything distract you?
I found myself wondering where all the children had gone, but quickly discounted mass abduction and realised that they must have left for their own groups. The choir sang their anthem between the first reading and the gospel, and during the anthem the organ developed a cipher – a high pitched whistling sound, almost like a kettle boiling, that persisted until after the offertory hymn.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
I expected quite a stiff worship style judging from the interior appointments and the fact that choir and altar party were vested. But the hymns were quite accessible, not in the least bit stuffy, and the overall atmosphere was relaxed – possibly too relaxed and chatty for my taste.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
13 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 – It was one of those sermons that seemed much shorter than it actually was.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Love. He compared different kinds of love, Christian, adult and family, in order to demonstrate what God's love means to us. He drew an analogy between God's love for the Israelites and the love of parents for their children – quite restrictive, based on rules and sanctions in an attempt to get them to behave properly. However, in John 15 Jesus speaks of a new love, an adult love – open, unrestricted and without sanctions.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
It was wonderful to share a service with a congregation ranging from the very young to the very senior. All too frequently "family service" means "dumbed- down service" aimed at those aged 10 and under. But St Mary's managed to strike a good balance that genuinely appealed to a wide range of ages.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Nothing during the service was announced. Some may think this a good thing – no awkward "Please turn to page so-and-so" or "And now we will sing hymn number so-and-so," and the service did flow along uninterrupted. But it also made for a service hard to follow. At one point even the vicar and choir became confused. I am used to a wide range of Anglican services, but I felt at times that I was struggling to keep up. How would a non-Anglican visitor feel?

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Disappointingly very little. One lady engaged me in a brief conversation, congratulating me on my powerful singing. She told me there were some people she wanted me to meet but was unable to find them. Apart from this, nobody else directly spoke to me. Back during the peace, the congregation were instructed to seek out and ask the name of at least one person they did not know. This prompted Shirley, Brian, Heather, Molly and two Sues to greet me warmly, but only one of them seemed to remember me at the end of the service.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Passable, after I had eventually found where it was being served from. Choice of tea or instant coffee made with hot water from Thermos flasks, with basic rich tea biscuits. On balance it probably was not worth the effort that had gone into finding it. Unfortunately nobody spoke to me whilst I stood right next to the serving table for the time it took me to drink my cup of coffee.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 – I would have given them a higher score if more people had spoken to me. In reality, if I were looking to make this my regular church I would go again, but how many more times would I have to go in order for more than one person to make me feel a part of the church family?

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes – this church demonstrates that Sunday morning services are still alive and happening with a combination of worship and good Bible-based teaching.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
That at least one person took time to greet me personally. This will challenge me to greet more people at my own church.
 
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