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  1013: St Alfege, Greenwich, London

St Alfege, Greenwich, London

Mystery Worshipper: Mopsuestia.
The church: St Alfege, Greenwich.
Denomination: Church of England.
The building: St Alfege is one of the landmarks of Greenwich, along with the Cutty Sark, the old Royal Observatory and the old Royal Naval College. The present church building, the third on the site, dates from 1718 but was extensively restored after suffering fire damage from bombing in World War II. The entrance to the church is at the west end, through the churchyard. The interior is light and airy, with side galleries supported on the slenderest of pillars. The layout is traditional – wooden pews, choir stalls, high altar in west facing position. The church is notable for being the burial place of Thomas Tallis, "the father of English music," and has a fine musical tradition.
The church community: The congregation seemed predominantly white middle class, archetypal Church of England – a good smattering of jackets and ties. Not a lot of ethnic diversity but there were a couple of black familes.
The neighbourhood: St Alfege is in the heart of the tourist hotspot of Greenwich. When I arrived at 9.15 it was quiet, but by 11.00 the streets were already busy. I've always assumed that Greenwich was a fairly affluent area – there are some extremely desirable houses along the edge of Greenwich Park! However, the parish is in fact an urban priority area, and on the side away from the High Street there are several council estates. Trinity College of Music and one of the campuses of the University of Greenwich are also nearby, but I didn't see any students in the congregation.
The cast: The parish is currently in an interregnum, as the vicar retired at the end of last year. The celebrant was the Rev. David Walsh, curate. Also taking part were the Rev. Stephen Nshimye and an unnamed lay reader. The preacher was David McEvoy, a lay person.

What was the name of the service?
Sung Eucharist – followed by the annual parochial church meeting.

How full was the building?
The church looked about two-thirds full. There was a gaping void in the front pews but this was later filled by children from the Sunday school. No one sat up in the galleries.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
To get into the church I had to fight my way through a group of young student tourists. Inside the church I was greeted by someone who asked if I had anything to do with the students. I said no, that I'd come for the service. I then made my own way over to the hymn book table, where I was asked if I intended to stay for the annual meeting.

Was your pew comfortable?
Square wooden pews. Some had cushions; mine didn't, but it was pretty comfortable all the same. The kneelers were of the long padded board type, mainly in use as footrests. You couldn't move them forward for kneeling without disturbing the whole pew, so most people sat in a crouched position for the prayers.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
I was early enough to catch the tail end of the choir practice. After that it was quiet with a noticeable lack of chatter. I was pleased that most people arrived in good time – not like my usual church.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning and welcome to St Alfege, Greenwich."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
Hymns Ancient and Modern (New Standard Edition), an in-house communion booklet (Common Worship order 1 traditional), and a notice sheet.

What musical instruments were played?
Organ plus an excellent choir of around 20. The music included a couple of movements from Palestrina's Missa Assumpta Est Maria and an anthem by Tchaikovsky in Church Slavonic. The Tchaikovsky could have done with a few more low basses, but the Palestrina was heavenly.

Did anything distract you?
During the anthem I noticed a woman in the pew behind me scribbling away furiously. I started to speculate about what she was up to – whether she was a rival mystery worshipper or perhaps simply writing a last minute speech for the annual meeting. She had certainly filled several sheets of paper.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Apart from the glorious music, the worship was restrained and pretty much middle of the road Anglican. The congregation was attentive and reserved but also quite relaxed. Things happened without a fuss. One thing that touched me was the fact that the lay reader used a wheelchair. He took full part in everything, even the procession, and joined the other ministers in the sanctuary for the eucharistic prayer.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
5 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
6 – It was billed as a "thought for the day" rather than a sermon, as the service was a bit shortened due to the annual meeting. The preacher began with a visual aid, a large piece of paper on which was written the acronym "wysiwyg." He asked the congregation what it meant. I began to cringe at this point, as I have loathed interactive type sermons ever since being subjected to them as a child. Luckily that was the end of that. His delivery was very clear and he engaged well with the congregation. However, his talk didn't give me anything to take away and chew over. I prefer a meatier sermon that provides food for thought throughout the week

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The main theme was how we know what God is like. As humans we very rarely show our true face but instead tend to hide our thoughts. The gospels teach us that God is like Jesus, and with Jesus "what you see is what you get." God is prepared to give everything. What can we do in our daily lives to show the true face of God?

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The music, especially the Kyrie from the Palestrina mass (which was sung during the communion).

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Having to adopt a crouching position for the eucharistic prayer due to the lack of a sensible kneeler. I really couldn't concentrate on the action. I actually much prefer to stand at this point anyway.

If intercessory prayers were said, what issues were raised?
These were said from the back of church by a member of the congregation. Topics mentioned were the new Bishop of Woolwich, World Poverty Day, St George, and a list of sick and departed. The intercessor fell into the sermonising trap and at one point we had an excursus on bravery and the George cross. No mention of the general election. The celebrant redeemed matters a bit when he said that we do not celebrate the eucharist alone, but rather in company with millions of others, especially today those gathered in Rome for the Papal inauguration.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Nothing. Most people got up and left pretty quickly. I stood around clasping my hymn book and looking sheepish but no one approached me. I then went to hand my books back and said that I was visiting and was there any coffee, as this had not been announced. I could easily have slipped out completely unnoticed. Everyone was too preoccupied with the annual meeting, or maybe it was just C of E reserve. Definitely room for improvement.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Instant coffee in proper mugs, accompanied by chocolate chip cookies and rich teas. I couldn't tell whether the coffee was fair trade or not as it was already spooned out. In the hall someone did come up to me, but it was only to borrow a pen so he could fill out his ballot form for the parish elections. Then the woman I had asked about coffee came in and I had a bit of a chat with her about the church and the music and how far they had got with appointing a new vicar. She also asked what my usual church was.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 – If this were my local church I'd certainly give it a try, even though I'd prefer a few more bells and smells. I felt comfortable with the size of the congregation. I'd be looking for more challenging preaching, though, than I found this time.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. The worship was reverent but relaxed. It was a joy to go to a church where people know how to listen and you are not disturbed by constant nattering thoughout the service. I also felt the preacher was trying to make things relevant even if I didn't care for his style. The children seemed joyful but not riotous when they came in at the communion.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The gentleman in the wheelchair taking such an active part in everything.
 
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