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  1048: Hinde Street Methodist, Marylebone, London

Hinde Street Methodist, London

Mystery Worshipper: Eliab.
The church: Hinde Street Methodist, Hinde Street, Marylebone, London W1.
Denomination: Methodist.
Comment: We have received a comment on this report.
The building: An impressive (and Grade II listed) church dominating the corner of Thayer Street and Hinde Street. The two storey building has a tall spire which to my mind rather clashes with the neo-Classical style. Roman arches and Corinthian columns feature heavily inside and out. The interior decoration (in white and pale blue) is subdued, appealing, and in excellent condition.
The church community: Hinde Street advertises itself as multi-cultural, and certainly all ages and several racial groups were represented this Sunday. It is very well-known in the local area for its work with the homeless as the centre of the West London Mission.
The neighbourhood: Just north of the tackiness of Oxford Street, and just south of the local shops of Marylebone, the neighbourhood has a high concentration of legal and medical professionals, a few office blocks, a private members' club (the Oriental) and a museum (the Wallace Collection). The residential catchment area includes council tower blocks, student digs, affluent London town-houses, and local homeless people. The Hinde Street area is West London in microcosm.
The cast: Cathy Bird (the minister).

What was the name of the service?
10.00am Holy Communion.

How full was the building?
Nineteen communicants and the minister attended the service. Hinde Street's principal morning service is at 11.00 am – this is a short, traditional language communion service for the more conservative side of the congregation.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
I was greeted at the door by a very friendly and rather talkative lady, who explained to me what services were taking place that morning and in what style, asked what brought me to the church and showed me to my seat. I was one of the first worshippers present, and most of the congregation greeted me on their arrival.

Was your pew comfortable?
The chairs were linked in rows and were most comfortable, but unfortunately far too close to the row in front for me to kneel (at least, not without pushing one or other row out of line). When we were instructed to "make your humble confession to Almighty God meekly kneeling upon your knees", the regulars, knowing this, took the words in a purely spiritual sense. I didn't, so I probably pushed the whole row of chairs back into some seated worshipper's knees. They didn't complain.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The atmosphere was at first very friendly and welcoming, but grew spontaneously quieter with about five minutes left before the service. By the time the minister entered, there was complete silence.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"A very good morning to you all at this our 10 o'clock service of Holy Communion."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
A booklet containing the Methodist 1936 Service of Holy Communion.

What musical instruments were played?
There was no music. No sung responses, no psalms, no hymns, no choruses, no worship songs. Thus no musical instruments at all. It was explained to me that there is sometimes a hymn at this service, but that this particular minister does not sing.

Did anything distract you?
There were unavoidable distractions from the street noises, and sounds like unto a skip being filled with rubble, which were clearly audible in quiet moments of the service. An entirely avoidable visual distraction was the junk collection (a chair-lift contraption, window-opening poles, a spare lectern and some drapery) in the corner just behind the side altar used at this service. This had been positioned nicely out of the way for the main service, but was bang in the line of sight for this one.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The Methodist 1936 order of service is a very slight modernisation of the Book of Common Prayer. Thus, while we "acknowledged and bewailed our manifold sins and wickedness", we did not find the "burden of them" to be "intolerable", as I had expected we would. The liturgy had been edited for inclusive language (no "men" in sight) – which I would have expected to grate somewhat, but oddly, it didn't.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
5 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – The preacher's delivery was flawless (no other word will suffice), every word was clear, every point given the right emphasis, and was spoken fluently without any trace of hesitation. If Cathy Bird ever appears on Just a Minute, she will beat Paul Merton out of sight, no question at all. The structure of the sermon could be improved – it felt rather like the sermon was mainly composed of bullet points, which individually could have stood some unpacking, and which collectively could have been better linked. I suspect that this was due to time constraints at what was meant to be a short service.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The text was Jesus as "the way, the truth and the life". Unusually, this was used as the basis of an inclusive (and possibly universalist) message, opening with a disavowal of the text as an evangelical rallying cry to deny the "presence of God and salvic truth in other major religions". The words were instead to be understood not as referring primarily to Jesus' exclusivity, but to his personality – not as limiting God, but as an intimate revealing of a once-distant God in one particular person, and that person the disciples' intimate friend. I believe there was a great deal of thought here that was not developed in the sermon itself, and I am torn between fulsome praise of the preacher for presenting eloquently and succinctly new light on a well known text, and deploring the fact that my expectation of a deeper analysis was left unfulfilled.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Cathy Bird is, as I have said, a very gifted speaker indeed, with a clear, measured and frankly beautiful voice. It is no great feat to make the language of the Prayer Book sound poetic. She did that, of course, but more impressively, made the words speak to me in a more natural and unforced manner than I have heard from any other minister.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The worst, most annoying, and least excusable feature of the service was the stream of late arrivals. No less than six of the attendees arrived late, almost, it seemed, on cue to irritate me. Each one felt the need either to bang the door, or greet other members of the congregation. I have to ask, how difficult can it really be to arrive on time for a half hour service that starts at a leisurely 10am? Apparently too difficult for a third of this congregation. It was a great pity that at such a beautiful and peaceful service at an exceptionally friendly church, I had to struggle with seething resentment with a minority's inexcusably bad manners.

If intercessory prayers were said, what issues were raised?
The prayers used were the general intercessions contained in the order of service, for the unity of the church, the Queen, the civil authorities, Christian ministers and people, those "in trouble, sorrow, need, sickness or any other adversity", and the faithful departed. No additions were made save for the names of some church members in need of prayer. No mention was made of Pope Benedict's inauguration.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I had no chance to stand around. I was spoken to by the lady who had welcomed me at the start, and invited to coffee in the church hall, as soon as the service had ended. Before I was out of my chair, the minister had come over to speak to me, and over coffee a few minutes later I was deep in conversation with three other members of the church. Not only did the 10am congregation make me welcome in the warmest and most genuine manner, but the minister arriving to take the 11 am service (Leao Neto) also made a point of introducing himself and telling me about the church's activities and mission.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Fair trade instant coffee, strong and hot, but with no choice but to have it with milk, and no sugar in sight. On the plus side, biscuits were provided, but only in the middle of one large table, creating a true dilemma for those (like me) who are both greedy and unsociable.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – I very much liked what I saw, but as this was not the church's main morning service, final judgment is reserved.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Without a doubt. This is clearly an active and friendly community, with dedicated ministers and intelligent teaching.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
I will remember being spoken to so warmly by so many of the congregation. I shall also still be thinking about the sermon – I am not sure that her approach to the text was entirely tenable, though it was certainly illuminating.
 
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