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  1035: Westminster Chapel, Buckingham Gate, Westminster

Westminster Chapel, Buckingham Gate, Westminster

Mystery Worshipper: Hurdy Gurdy.
The church: Westminster Chapel, Buckingham Gate, Westminster.
Denomination: The denomination seemed to be a sore subject; some mentioned it being a free evangelical church, while others said differently. The programme stated it was an evangelical church.
The building: Westminster Chapel has a long history, mainly through its community work with the poor. The building could be missed since the sign above the door is a bit small, rusty and could do with a polish, but the inside of the chapel is well worth a visit. Only the good Lord himself knows how they are going to clean those windows!
The church community: The chapel has a large deaf community. Signing is available at all services, and many of the hearing members have learnt to sign. The chapel also teaches sign language to church members in order to encourage the deaf community.
The neighbourhood: Westminster Chapel is 200 yards from Buckingham Palace and one mile north of Parliament. So I suppose it's unique in that it could be Tony and Lizzie's local. The church also has competition from Westminster Abbey, Westminster Cathedral and Westminster Central Hall.
The cast: The minister is the Rev. Greg Haslam, but this service was led by his stand-in, Paul Rogers, who is also the chapel's youth minister. Worship was led by "Rich".

What was the name of the service?
Sunday evening service.

How full was the building?
It was a disappointing turn out to start with, with less than 100 people turning up on time. But once the worship had ended, the chapel had filled up and around 250 people were in attendance. Westminster Chapel is so vast, though, that it still looked pretty empty.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
An official welcomer greeted me as though I was a long-lost friend. It was a bit OTT, to be honest, but top marks for effort. Inside was a different matter – no one said hello, but then, there were so few people anyway. One lady sat next to me and greeted me, but the lady on the other side didn't.

Was your pew comfortable?
The "screwed to the ground" pews were not the most comfortable of seating. There were long cushions in the pews, but they were made from the roughest material known to man. I suspect the cushions were as old as the chapel itself (1840), since the one I was sitting on was wearing away. It also appears that the chapel-goers have short legs; the pews in front gave no space for me to stretch my legs. I discovered that the most comfortable position was to sit low in the pew and raise your knees against the pew in front, but this was not ideal and I spent most of the time feeling cramped. Perhaps this is to encourage people to stand throughout the worship.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The worship group were playing when I entered the chapel, but soon stopped playing and disappeared. The atmosphere was quiet, with a few people getting up to talk to friends. The service started without ceremony, when Mr Rogers suddenly appeared on the stage, saying hello. He asked everyone to welcome each other. Half of us responded, and a slow, embarrassed greeting went around the room.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good evening, everyone" – followed by an explanation of where the main man (Rev. Haslam) was and why he wasn't here.

What books did the congregation use during the service?
Song words, Bible readings, church notices, sermon points, shopping lists, love letters, etc., were displayed throughout the service by enthusiastic notice board committee members. The New International Version of the Bible and the Christian Hymnal were available in the pew in front of me, but were not used in the service.

What musical instruments were played?
A good selection of guitars was used during the worship time, along with an electric keyboard, bongos, and a drummer ostracised behind a glass screen. I wondered if his playing had been so bad in recent weeks that he had been placed behind a screen to protect him from being pelted with eggs, but apparently this was to stop the worship band from being too loud. It didn't really work, though. There was a fantastic pipe organ, hidden behind the notice screen. Sadly, this was not played during the service.

Did anything distract you?
Someone had brought their dog into the chapel, and it suddenly yelped four times during the service. It was good to know that animals are welcome into the service, though.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
There was an almost happy-clappy style to the worship, but not so much that I felt embarrassed. You were allowed to sit once you'd had enough, but thoughts of the rough cushions kept me standing throughout (see, it worked!). The church seemed to get the worship over with and then have the sermon, with nothing else on offer during the service. I found it frustrating that each song seemed to be sung to death before the next song could begin – in 20 minutes we only managed to get through three songs. Having said all this, I enjoyed the worship and would definitely recommend it. I've been in churches where you're afraid of what the person alongside you is going to do next, but the worship here helped me feel I was in the presence of God.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
An astonishing 52 minutes long. 52 minutes!

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
4 – Mr Rogers admitted he had been a school teacher, and it showed. Lectures of that length should be kept to the classroom. He said some good stuff, but after a while I kept checking the watch and praying for the end. Forty-six minutes into the sermon, I looked around the congregation to see if anyone was asleep. Amazingly, most were awake, and I noticed a whole group chewing gum like a herd of cattle. Maybe this rhythmic chewing, along with the drone from the stage, was a sort of meditation rite.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The title was "When God is on the move" – based on Numbers chapter 10. It was a six-point sermon, and one point had three sub-points to it. A lot of the sermon was aimed solely at church members and the future of Westminster Chapel. God is coming soon, we were told, God is moving on the church soon, and there is hope for the future. Although the preacher said many good things and made some good points, there was just too much information for one session. I was also put off by Mr Rogers' dislike of everything non-chapel, and his micky-taking of northerners.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The worship... and the end of the sermon.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
52 minutes! What more can I say? It only takes me 40 minutes to get home; 30 minutes to cook my tea; 45 minutes to get out of bed in the morning. Am I getting the point across here?

If intercessory prayers were said, what issues were raised?
No prayers were said for anybody specifically during the service. However, at the end of the sermon we were asked to pray for the person next to us. The lady beside me asked if I wanted to be prayed for, but I declined. This was a dreadful moment, but the lady wasn't upset about being rejected for prayer. Instead she spent time chatting, which made some of the effect of the sermon ease. She then invited me to go for a coffee at the back of the church.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Nothing much. Few spoke to me and I spent some time sitting alone on a chair by the wall. One man in full camouflage gear came and spoke to me. He offered me his phone number and said I should visit him and see his neighbour's cat. He also said if I ever needed prayer I could phone him and he would come and pray with me, since he liked prayer. Oddly enough, I declined the invite.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Fair-trade, so I was told. Tea and decaff were also available. Coffee was a "make it yourself in a paper cup" affair, but there were digestive biscuits aplenty. The coffee was not hot, but warm.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
3 – The worship was good (I'd even say excellent), but there's just no way I could sit through a 52 minute sermon every week. It was good to see doggies being allowed in, and the herd of chewing cattle across the chapel, but I don't think it's humane to make pets or humans sit through that.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, because of the worship. I came away feeling glad that I had a patient God. If he is patient enough to endure a 52 minute sermon, he is patient enough to help me out.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The worship, free and open, but sadly missed by so many latecomers.
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