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2281: St James, Birkenhead, Merseyside, England
St James, Birkenhead
Mystery Worshipper: Torold.
The church: St James, Birkenhead, England.
Denomination: Church of England, Diocese of Chester.
The building: A large Victorian landmark church in the north end of Birkenhead. Its soaring Gothic spire dominates the skyline. The church stands on an island at the junction of seven roads, surrounded by buildings and industry. Built in sandstone under a slate roof, it has become blackened and begrimed with pollution over the years. A message on the noticeboard outside reads "See message inside". The interior is a welcome haven of peace and brightness. The nave and chancel are high and wide with a fine wooden roof. A banner over the chancel arch proclaims "JESUS IS LORD".
The church: The parish includes St Bede, a little mission church about half a mile away in Claughton village. They are great supporters of missionary work at home and abroad. This church involves itself in the community. As well as an Alpha course and times for meditation, it holds coffee mornings, parents and tots groups, and a youth group for 11-to-14-year-olds. In the run-up to Christmas, there are nativity plays for different groups and a North End Community carol service, along with carol singing in local nursing homes. They have also been collecting boxes of toys for Operation Christmas Child 2011.
The neighbourhood: The parish grew with the urban sprawl from Birkenhead toward the area of Claughton. Much was terraced streets and council housing, though no doubt a big proportion of the dwellings are now privately owned. Some redevelopment is evidently taking place, as below the church a large site has been cleared. Close by is the large Victorian Flaybrick cemetery which borders Bidston Hill, a local recreational heathland overlooking Liverpool Bay. Other landmarks are Bidston Windmill, which can be seen for miles around from its elevated position on the hill; and the former observatory, once famous for its calculations of tide times and heights around the world. Tam O'Shanter Urban Farm is a short walk from St James church and is a popular venue for youngsters and school parties from around the Merseyside area. Locally there is a good smattering of shops and services, a primary school, a railway station with links to Liverpool, a health centre and, of course, pubs.
The cast: The Revd Sandra Langerhuizen, assistant curate of St James, led the worship. The Revd Steve Mansfield, vicar, played the guitar and preached.
The date & time: Last Sunday after Pentecost, 20 November 2011, 10.30am – traditionally known as "Stir-up Sunday" (from the opening words of the collect for the day), a reminder to start making the Christmas pudding!

What was the name of the service?
All Age Morning Worship with Baptism.

How full was the building?
Less than half full. With the children from the crèche, who stayed in church for this service, there will have been about 60 present.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
From the start, everyone was friendly. A smiling lady handed me a pew sheet and a couple of service leaflets. A man asked if I was visiting; there was a baptism family group present. Several people said hello before I sat down.

Was your pew comfortable?
Pew was quite comfy with its carpet runner. I didn't really sit for long enough at any time for it to be otherwise. There were no hassocks or anything to kneel on, but prayers just seemed to happen in whatever position you were in.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
There was quiet chatter, not annoying or invasive at all. Recorded music and songs over the public address system set the scene. It was a pleasure to sit and listen.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Welcome to you this morning ..." (howling feedback from the public address system, smiles all round) "... especially if you are visiting."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
Hymn words on overhead projector, most of the time, from Songs of Fellowship. The Holy Bible, New International Version was in the pews. The morning prayer leaflet and baptism leaflet were based on Common Worship.

What musical instruments were played?
Recorded keyboard music; vicar played guitar, the crèche children had a good time shaking maracas and a tambourine.

Did anything distract you?
A small child in the crèche decided that the quiet of the prayers would be a good time to start bawling, which it did with great gusto!

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Happy clappy low church with swingin' hymns. I noticed one man raising his hands in worship during one of the choruses. Everyone else was clapping in time to the rhythms.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
9 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – The vicar stood at the top of the chancel steps. He spoke without notes into a hand-held microphone, clearly and interestingly.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The gospel reading was Matthew 25:31-46, the parable of the Good Shepherd. Sheep would be lost without a shepherd to lead them and provide security, giving them a sense of direction. God is like the shepherd: he is good at providing order to us, bringing peace and security, and giving a sense of direction in our lives. At this time of preparing for Advent, we (his people) get ready for the divine Shepherd.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The warm welcome, the cheerful worshipful atmosphere, the overall experience of joining with the people of St James's church – and I am not usually a "happy clappy" merchant!

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
You could say the devil threw a spanner in the electronic works on a couple of occasions: for the first verse of the opening hymn, the congregation were beaten by the recorded music to the finishing line! The second verse was better because the music was played a bit louder. Then there was a rather embarrassing moment when the sound control man was not able to find the hymn tune on his machine. It didn't matter though. Hymn books had been piled at the end of each pew, so the hymn number was announced, the vicar took up his guitar and we all had a good sing. Problem? What problem? The hymn machine worked fine the next time it was needed.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Several people invited me for a hot drink – you couldn't leave without passing the tea trolley anyway. People milled about, chatting. I was handed a cup of coffee and a biscuit.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There were tea, coffee, juice, biscuits, fairly traded, okay.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 – Although this is not really my style of worship, I would certainly consider it an option if it was.

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

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The children hopelessly NOT keeping rhythm. I still chuckle when I think about it!
 
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