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  1500: St Nicholas, Durham, England

St Nicholas, Durham, England

Mystery Worshipper: Virginia.
The church: St Nicholas, The Market Place, Durham, England.
Denomination: Church of England.
The building: A large city centre church which was once part of the city's fortifications. It was refurbished during the incumbency of Dr George Carey, during which, among other changes, the position of the altar was changed to the south side of the church along a long axis, and the pews were replaced by lots of comfortable chairs.
The church: It seems to be quite a diverse community, serving local residents, business people, tourists and a sizeable number of students during term time. When we visited there was a contingent from the local King's Church who normally use a university building which was, of course, closed. The church calls itself "an oasis of grace in the heart of the city". There is a pastoral link with local businesses, called the Market Place Parnership. The church has a shop attached selling articles from developing countries.
The neighbourhood: The church is right in the centre of the city, in the ancient market place. Facing it is the legendary statue of the Marquess of Londonderry on his horse. Allegedly, the sculptor forgot to give the horse a tongue and on realising this he killed himself. In the past, people entering and leaving the city via the Clay Port would stop at the church to give thanks to God or to ask for his protection.
The cast: The church is in an interregnum, and the service was led by the Revd David Day and the Revd Peter Johnson, both non-stipendiary priests. Communion was celebrated by the curate, the Revd Dr Rosalyn Murphy.
The date & time: Christmas Day, 25th December 2007 at 10.00am.

What was the name of the service?
A Service of Holy Communion for Christmas Day.

How full was the building?
So full that there were insufficient seats.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
As soon as we had found a seat, we were approached by the Revd Johnson, who shook our hands and welcomed us warmly, wishing us a merry Christmas. Later, a nearby lady engaged us in lengthy conversation.

Was your pew comfortable?
Very comfortable indeed. The chairs were like armchairs without arms!

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
As one would expect on Christmas Day: people were greeting each other and there was an expectant buzz which, from a full to bursting church, became really loud. Nearer the start of the service, the music group began to play and sing songs, some seasonal, some not. They made a good sound!

What were the exact opening words of the service?
Before the service began, a lady announced, "Good morning, we are full," and she asked us to share books and seats. The service began by the Revd Johnson saying, "Good morning, and a very happy Christmas to you all."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
A specially prepared booklet containing all the songs and hymns and the communion service. There were pew copies of the New International Version of the Bible for us to follow the scripture readings if we wished. Mission Praise was there also and is obviously the day-to-day song book of the church.

What musical instruments were played?
Organ for the traditional carols and hymns, plus piano, oboe, violin and guitar.

Did anything distract you?
There were two beautiful metal sculptures behind the altar. One was a cross but I couldn't work out what the other one was. Through the window behind them I could see Woolworths, which made me conscious of the different ways we in this country view Christmas.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Delightfully informal but not happy clappy, and certainly not stiff upper lip. Given that it was Christmas, there had to be traditional element to the songs and readings with posssibly less scope than normal for more modern worship.

St Nicholas, Durham, England

Exactly how long was the sermon?
18 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
10 – As an ex-teacher, the Revd Day knew how to gain and keep people's attention. His talk was interactive throughout.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Fairly obviously, Christmas! He had to reach both children and adults, and he began by pulling a large cracker and then taking its contents one by one and explaining what each is about. The crown is there because we are all kings; the gift because Jesus was the best gift of all; and the motto because God has a message for all of us. Each of these points was embellished by asking the congregation to guess what he was miming, or to answer quiz questions. A highly entertaining, but informative, sermon.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The Revd Murphy's prayers. It was especially wonderful at the communion rail to be next to a lady whose baby was overdue and to hear her praying fervently for the baby's birth. Her prayers during the communion service were all delivered with true commitment and the sincerity of her facial expressions was a joy to watch.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Inevitably, since the church was so full, there was a long wait during communion, during which people's attention wandered and conversations were in danger of reaching pre-service levels.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
We couldn't! As soon as the service ended, a lady nearby engaged us in conversation, and we then all filed out – a major operation in itself given the size of the congregation. The priests shook everyone's hand and we were all given a chocolate, as promised at the start of the service.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There wasn't any coffee. I guess it wouldn't have been logistically possible to offer it.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
10 – This is an evangelical church and it seems to live up to the message from its website, which seems right up my street.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Oh yes! There was vitality and sincerity in abundance.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The curate's prayers and her sparkly shoes!
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