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  1053: St Gabriel's, Cricklewood, London

St Gabriel’s, Cricklewood, London

Mystery Worshipper: Church-hopper.
The church: St Gabriel's, Cricklewood, London.
Denomination: Church of England.
The building: Undistinguished Victorian Gothic, but not too exuberant. Smart inside, with a feeling as soon as I went through the door that this is a church that cares about first impressions. At the back as you go in are a coffee area, a well-stocked fair trade stall and a bookstall. There are no pews, but chairs, which that evening only filled the central area of the church, leaving lots of space for chatting at the back. There is a carved wooden screen and a high altar at the east end, with a large triptych behind, but the action takes place in front of the screen, where there is a simple wooden altar. The windows are all stained glass, but good lighting stops it being dark and dingy. Best of all are the beautiful banners, made by members of the church, top prize going to a wonderful Noah's ark with all its animals.
The church: St Gabriel's is part of the New Wine network and has close links with Holy Trinity Brompton. It was awaiting the installation of its new incumbent the week following my visit.
The neighbourhood: The immediate neighbourhood is predominantly residential – a mixture of well-heeled London suburb, yuppie and not so yuppie flat conversions, and housing for the less affluent. The area is ethnically diverse.
The cast: The service was led by Emma Liberman, a lay member of the congregation; the preacher was the assistant minister, John Itumu.

What was the name of the service?
Informal worship – an evening service established a few years ago in conjunction with Holy Trinity Brompton.

How full was the building?
There were about 25 people there, but this was not the main service of the day. A good mix of ages. The church didn't feel too big, because there were not too many chairs. At the beginning, we were invited to move forwards, so that we were reasonably close together, but without being forced to compromise on personal space.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes – and what a wonderful welcome! The coffee counter was right inside the door and the young woman making coffee greeted me like a long-lost friend. We had a good chat and then she introduced me to someone else. I felt right at home.

Was your pew comfortable?
It was a red padded chair – comfortable and with executive class legroom.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
When I arrived, the band was warming up and the volume was so loud that I could hear it in the street outside. Not wanting to appear uncool, I tried not grimace too much while chatting to my welcoming committee, but I did wonder whether my eardrums or my sanity would last the evening. Thankfully, someone realised that it was a tad loud and turned it down, after which the atmosphere was happy, expectant and friendly. Before I even sat down, I felt that I was with friends.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good evening everybody and welcome to St Gabriel's."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
New International Version Bibles were provided in the seats. The words of the songs appeared on a screen from a low-tech (hand-operated) overhead projector.

What musical instruments were played?
Keyboard, electric guitar, bongos and a brilliant drummer; also a male and a female singer.

Did anything distract you?
I was taken by surprise when a coffee break was suddenly announced. We had just sung some songs which had created a lovely worshipful atmosphere and although we were told that we were welcome to carry on as we were, the moment had gone. Also, the words on the screen didn't always match what was being sung, though the person operating it was very adept at swapping the slides around quickly.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
As promised, it was informal. It felt like a group of people meeting together to worship God in whatever way felt right for them; this should not have surprised me, but I did notice that I felt included as a member, rather than a visitor to someone else's club, even though it was not my default style of worship. The songs were modern and I didn't know them all, but the musicians were good and the congregation sang, so I was able to join in.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
19 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – He had an engaging manner and I didn't get bored, but it was a bit disjointed – more an exegesis on the passage than an overall argument.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
It was based on 1 Peter chapter 2. We need to crave God, as newborn infants crave milk. Through baptism we are changed. As Christians, we are called to be radically different, which sometimes means being counter-cultural.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Feeling so welcome. Everyone seemed really pleased that I had come. Spookily, everyone who asked me my name claimed to have the same name themself, which made we wonder whether I had in fact stepped into a parallel universe, if not heaven. Or maybe it's part of their welcoming strategy.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The unexpected coffee announcement. It wasn't that I minded having a coffee break in the middle (a good idea in fact), but an early warning would have been nice.

If intercessory prayers were said, what issues were raised?
There were no formal intercessory prayers, but the notices (during that coffee break) included comments on Make Poverty History and the general election.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Well obviously it was impossible to look lost for long before someone spoke to me. Having completed one conversation, I tried to look lost again, but a nanosecond later someone else extracted herself from a huddle of friends and came and asked me if I was OK, so we had a nice chat.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
I had three large mugs of very good real coffee (fair trade) – one at each end of the service and one in the middle. I wouldn't normally drink that much coffee in one service, but I was really enjoying meeting all these lovely people, so I had to stay for more at the end. Chocolate biscuits, too.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 – From a fellowship point of view, I would definitely consider it, as I felt that I was among people I could visualise as friends. Judging by the sermon, I might find the theology a bit conservative and I would also want more varied music, although that might be available at their other services.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Oh yes! It demonstrated why it is important for Christians to meet and worship together and I went home with a big smile on my face.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
Feeling genuinely welcome and at home even on my first visit. And how to get there for my next visit.
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