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  1487: St Ebbe's, Oxford, England

St Ebbe's, Oxford

Mystery Worshipper: Thurible.
The church: St Ebbe's, Oxford, England.
Denomination: Church of England.
The building: The original church on this site was dedicated around 1005 and remained in use until 1813, when it was declared dangerous and replaced by the present building. From the outside it's a rather dull, gray stone church – standard design with a tower. Inside, the bricks are painted white and the layout has been rearranged so that the worship band sit in the former chancel at a right-angle to the congregation, whose chairs are arranged to face the stage at the south side of the church. A couple of war memorials, a couple of stained glass windows, but otherwise no decoration at all (not even a cross that I could see).
The church: The congregation is huge, it would seem, and very active, with lots and lots going on. The St Ebbe's crowd are regarded as the ultimate Christian Union types, conservative, biblical literalists and all that goes with such stereotypes.
The neighbourhood: It's in the middle of the city centre, so is surrounded by supermarkets, bars, pubs and offices rather than houses. Nearby is the Westgate shopping centre, which was built in the 1970s on land formerly belonging to the parish.
The cast: The Revd Vaughan Roberts, rector, led the service, with the Revd Julian Bidgood curate, preaching.
The date & time: Sunday, 23 September 2007, 6.30pm.

What was the name of the service?
"The 6.30." Their website listed it as Holy Communion, but the service sheet had it down as the Lord's Supper.

How full was the building?
Almost entirely full – I'd guess about 300. I spotted a few empty seats around the edge but there were very few indeed.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
As we walked in, we were handed a sheet and welcomed in a friendly but not overbearing fashion. We sat down and, as the church started to fill up (we had arrived quite early), the person who had given us the sheet came and chatted, asking where we'd come from, if we were visitors, etc.

Was your pew comfortable?
It was a cushioned, wooden chair which would have been fine if they didn't have such a large congregation. Having to fit so many chairs in meant there was no room for my legs at all – and I'm not unusually tall.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
As the church began to fill up, the noise level gradually increased with 300 people sharing this week's gossip or introducing themselves to their neighbour. There was simply no quiet in which to prepare for the service.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good evening and welcome to St Ebbe's."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
An in-house produced service sheet, with the words of the songs and the few prayers we said.

What musical instruments were played?
Keyboard, guitars, violin and drums played by a worship band.

Did anything distract you?
St Ebbe's is full of beautiful people – young, well-dressed, well-groomed, attractive people. It was amazing. A chap a few rows in front kept his beanie on throughout the service. That kept distracting me to the point where I had to make a conscious effort not to look in his direction.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Informal rather than happy clappy. No arm waving, clapping, or shouting "Hallelujah!" The leaders of the service were in open-necked shirts. The music was led by a worship band with a couple of singers. The only things we recited were the confession, the Lord's Prayer and the prayer of humble access. Oh, yes, and we all read a passage from 1 Timothy in unison as three new lay workers were commissioned.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
32 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – The curate kept my interest throughout, despite the fact that my backside was starting to numb and my legs were cramped. His talk was very Bible-oriented, with mention of only one other book, a Christian self-help book. Repetition also seemed to be a key part of his style, seemingly so people could jot it all down (as they were doing in abundance around me). I must confess it felt rather like a lecture – an interesting lecture but a lecture nonetheless. I did find it odd, though, that he mentioned several times how we should keep in touch with our non-Christian friends – as if the church assumed that we naturally wouldn't be inclined to do so.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The importance of godliness, witness and edification, and how we should organise our time so that we can serve God in all of it.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
At communion, the chalices were not ministered, but rather passed round from hand to hand for people to drink from. This was quite different from how I'd have preferred it to be done. Nonetheless, it was very lovely and very prayerful.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The jealousy that pervaded every fibre of my being as I tried to work out how on earth they managed to get 300-odd young people into church.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
There was little chance of that. Everyone was very friendly and we were roundly greeted.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Tea and coffee were being served in the church centre, but unfortunately we had to leave. It looked as if it would be rather a scrum to get any, though, given the number of people making their way through.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 – Theologically, ecclesiologically, musically and all the rest, it's not really my style. Nonetheless, I should like to return on a regular basis, rather than making it my regular church.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, it did, rather.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The hordes of young people crowding into church on a wet, windy evening out of term.
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