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1965: Spital Street Methodist, Dartford, Kent, England
Spital Street Methodist, Dartford, Kent, England
Photo: Matt Bembridge
Mystery Worshipper: The Revelator.
The church: Spital Street Methodist, Dartford, Kent, England.
Denomination: Methodist Church of Great Britain, Kent Thameside Circuit.
The building: Built in 1884 to replace an older structure, it has a castle like exterior and some very pretty art nouveau stained glass windows. The inside is painted white. There is a balcony and an impressive set of organ pipes. It is quite a small church but incredibly efficient in design. At the front is a smaller lectern and a larger one for the preacher, both flanking a smallish communion table. This area is sectioned off by a communion rail. To one side is a small baptismal font. At the back is a notice board. There were also five small round tables set for the coffee hour.
The church: They support the Rainbow Centre, a voluntary organisation run by the churches of the Ebbsfleet Covenant that hosts a variety of activities ranging from mother and toddler groups to a brass band. The church hall is hirable (as long as you don't require alcohol). Members are also encouraged to take an interest in local politics.
The neighbourhood: Dartford is situated in the northwest corner of Kent, 16 miles east-southeast of central London. Once a market town, today's Dartford is primarily a commuter community but is home to some important industries, including Mazda Motors, although many once-prosperous industrial facilities have suffered decline or have closed. A large power station on the Thames at Littlebrook, to the north of the town, boasts one of the tallest chimneys in the UK. Rolling Stones legend Mick Jagger attended Dartford Grammar School. The church is near the town centre and is one of the more interesting buildings in Dartford.
The cast: The participants were not greatly forthcoming with names, but the sermon was given by Dorothy Hulme, a preacher associated with the Kent Thameside Circuit. All were smartly dressed in street clothes.
The date & time: Sunday, 18 April 2010, 10.30am.

What was the name of the service?
Sunday Worship.

How full was the building?
I counted approximately 60 seats and there were about 45 people in total. They all appeared to have known each other a long time, but not in an unwelcoming or stand-offish way.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
A gentlemen smiled, shook my hand, and handed me two hymn books.

Was your pew comfortable?
Rows of incredibly robust red padded chairs that were purpose built and very comfortable. They included a shelf to put books on.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Lively banter but in a quiet way.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning, everyone. We are very pleased to welcome Dorothy Hulme to preach today."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
Two hymn books, the Methodist Hymnal and Songs of Worship. Bibles (New International Version) were on the backs of the chairs. There was no order of service. It did not really need one, as the service was very straightforward and the ministers announced what was going to happen.

What musical instruments were played?
A big pipe organ.

Did anything distract you?
One of the ministers who sat at the side kept giving me sideways looks as I was taking notes. The preacher sat down for the sermon, which was not a problem in itself, but due to her small stature she looked like she was hiding behind the lectern.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Happy in a dignified hymn sandwich sort of way. The congregation seemed happy to be there and maintained their interest throughout. The readings were John 21:1-14 (the risen Jesus brings about a miraculous catch of fish) and Acts 9:1-15 (Paul's conversion on the road to Damascus). The hymns were all traditional. There was no choir, as it is quite a small church. While the congregation didn't raise the roof, they sang like they were enjoying it and collectivley held a good tune. There was no communion. We were not dismissed with a blessing; rather, the minister closed by thanking Mrs Hulme for her contribution and us all for coming.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
34 minutes (it was a Methodist service).

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – Mrs Hulme began her sermon in a measured and assertive way, although as it went on I thought she became somewhat rambling and tongue-tied. However, she did manage to pull it back together for the conclusion. She apparently enjoys a long-standing relationship with the church and certainly commanded the respect of the congregation.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
She began by describing how Jesus turned things around. First the apostles – having fished in vain all night, they suddenly caught more than their nets could hold – and then St Paul. Christ had that power. But then she digressed into a discussion of decreasing church attendance and aging congregations (this congregation was approximately 70 per cent over 65). She quoted from TV documentaries such as the BBC's History of Christianity and Wonders of the Solar System. Finally she turned to the power of prayer and the need to keep praying whilst maintaining hope. She concluded with a quote from Revelation.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The wonderful details, such as the correct hymn numbers on the hymn board, the lovely coffee tables at the back complete with tablecloths, flowers, and plates of biscuits. Also the light simplicity of the building. Mostly, though, it was the warm friendliness of the congregation that won me over.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
I began to feel somewhat guilty about being there under false pretences, as it were. I especially felt this at the end, when I was quizzed about why I was there. There was also mention of the Lord having delivered a small family to an ailing church in Kent. Who was it who delivered me there, it could be asked.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
No time for that. One of the ministers took me by the arm and sat me down at a table with four other ladies. They all engaged me in very friendly conversation. They seemed genuinely interested in talking with me, which was nice.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Probably the most civilised and decorous after-service coffee I've ever experienced! Tasty, too, and served in real china cups with proper saucers on tables covered with linen tablecloths. I did not manage to find out where the coffee was from.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – It would certainly be a consideration. My own tastes are very high (too high, perhaps). But the people made the church. I would not hesitate recommending it to anyone.

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

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The friendly welcome from the congregation.
 
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