Mystery Worshipper: Ken T. Poste
Church: City Temple
Location: Holborn, London
Date of visit: Sunday, 23 October 2016, 11:00am
Built in 1874, it stands on Holborn Viaduct with an imposing frontage not entirely unlike the Al Khazneh of Petra. It was partially destroyed in the Second World War and rebuilt in the 1950s. As you enter, you will note that the main body of the building slopes downwards, slightly away from you, before a few steps lead up from the front of the church to a low platform. The very high ceiling gives it quite a cavernous feel and the eye is naturally drawn up to a large cross with an image of a dove above it. The church has been described as the cathedral of nonconformity.
Theres some dispute over when exactly the church was founded. The general consensus is that it dates back to 1640, but theres some evidence going back to the 1560s. Historically, its been a free church, founded by Puritans who did want to conform to the strictures of the Church of England. The church has a history of vibrant characters as ministers, ranging from Thomas Goodwin (chaplain to Oliver Cromwell); the great orator Joseph Parker; the radical socialist preacher Reginald John Campbell; and the highly controversial liberal theologian Leslie Weatherhead. Having been a Congregationalist church for many years, City Temple is currently part of the United Reformed Church, as well as being a member of the Evangelical Alliance. Being based in the city, it hosts a midweek lunchtime meeting for people who work locally. It has a number of different ministries running at any one time, including a prayer community (operating under the byname of City Of London House Of Prayer COLHOP), training courses, and outreach, as well as more informal fellowship. The church runs a course called Freedom in Christ for those wishing to further explore the Christian faith.
Holborn (pronounced, somewhat unfortunately, as hoe-burn) is very much a business district of London, with very few residential properties. As such, much of the congregation commute in from the outskirts of the City. If you approach directly from either the north or the south, then you may be stumped to find it, as its located on a viaduct, where the street layout exists on two overlapping levels. Like much of the City of London, the area has a split personality: very busy during the week and virtually deserted at weekends. On a Sunday, the only tourists wandering around tend to be the ones that got rather lost looking either for St Pauls Cathedral or the West End theatre/shopping district. Charles Dickens described the area as "perhaps ... the finest piece of street architecture in the City." As well as to that most famous of writers, the area has also been, at one time or another, home to the likes of the poet Samuel Taylor-Coleridge, the socialist writer and founder of the arts and crafts movement, William Morris, as well as motorbike racer Barry Sheene.
It was pretty much a one-man show, all led by the pastor, the Revd Dr Rod Woods. He played guitar, led the singing, said all the prayers and preached.
What was the name of the service?Worship
How full was the building?
At the start of the service there were about 35 people present. But by the end of the service that number had almost doubled. Still, it's a large building so it felt a bit sparse.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
It was a marvelous welcome. I received a good handshake and a gentle enquiry if I was visiting. When I said I was, I was directed to where the toilets are and where the coffee was being served. I was offered a Bible, a notice sheet, and welcome card, and I was invited to take a seat wherever I liked. It was complete, warm but not intrusive.
Was your pew comfortable?
We had long, fairly hard pews, but the angle of the back and the rounded front of the seat meant it wasn't too bad.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
A few quiet conversations were going on as people caught on up on the happenings of the week. It was all friendly and good natured.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Welcome. Good morning. Good to see everyone here today."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The words to the songs were up on a screen with some slightly cheesy Christian stock pictures forming the backdrop. The readings were given from the English Standard Version of the Bible. We were also given a notice sheet that had a rough outline of the service on it.
What musical instruments were played?
Piano, two guitars (one electric, one acoustic) and drums.
Did anything distract you?
During the sung worship, one person evidently had more enthusiasm in one arm than half of the rest of the congregation. She was dancing around at the front with tremendous gusto, occasionally waving a thin gossamer-like flag around. The sheer eccentricity and energy of her movement naturally drew the eye. At a few points during the service, some small children were charging around the back of the church, causing some noise that made one or two look around.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was moderately happy clappy, but apart from the dancing lady, it was not overly charismatic in style. One song did induce one of the guitarists to enter into an extended solo, which may be considered to be a little gratuitous. The whole service was informal and relaxed; possibly too relaxed for some tastes, including when Pastor Rod was lying back on the platform steps while he talked with the children and then continued to sit on the steps as he prayed. He wasn't afraid of praying frankly about hot political topics, including Brexit negotiations and the forthcoming presidential election in America.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – Pastor Rod was very active with his hands. When he wasn't using both of them to gesticulate as he talked, he was variously tucking one into his pocket and holding a cup of coffee in the other. Whether it was still warm by the end of the sermon, I don't know. He spoke completely off the cuff, which did lead him to repeating himself slightly and labouring some points. He could have got his message across in little over half the time if he'd stuck to a plan with some notes.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
"God gives good." Based loosely on a trio of passages (Psalm 85 "You, Lord, showed favor to your land," Matthew 7:7-12 "Ask and it will be given to you," James 1:12-18 "Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial,") he swiftly moved onto the subject of tomato sauce. His illustration was that he was so used to a high sugar, inferior tomato sauce that when he went to Italy and had proper tomato sauce on his pasta, he didn't appreciate it. As such, we should be wary about getting used to things that are less than good and thinking of them as good. When God disciplines us, he is getting us ready to be able to receive his goodness. Some people use the vastness of space as an argument against the existence of God, but in fact it is a demonstration of God's extravagant giving to humanity. But God will not give you everything you ask for, as to think like that misreads the Matthew passage the "name it and claim it" kind of prosperity is not what Jesus was talking about.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The people were a joy to be with. Not only was the welcome on the door exemplary, but everyone I spoke to was really open and friendly. In the middle of the service there was a time for us to "greet one another In Jesus' name," which was about five minutes of shaking hands and saying hello. Normally this could be quite off-putting, but there was nothing superficial in the welcome. It was truly warm; something special.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The large auditorium made for an issue with acoustics that the sound team hadn't properly fixed. At times, the sound reverberated quite a lot, resulting in a lack of clarity, particularly during the notices. There were also several typos on the song lyrics.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I sat and had a lovely conversation with the lady who had come in part way through the service and sat next to me. She told me how she had been fed up with churches that were obsessed with money, fed up with phony vicars and fed up with religion. She'd given up on church but had been invited to an event at City Temple the night before that she'd gone along to and enjoyed. She then came back this morning, and by the time I spoke to her she'd made up her mind that she was going to stick around and return to church life by making City Temple her home congregation. I went off for coffee and spoke to a few more people, one of whom eyed me a bit suspiciously; I wonder if he'd counted the offering and clocked me as the Mystery Worshipper, though he didn't say anything explicitly.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
It was difficult to get to, as it was self-service from an urn. There were several people who, having got their coffee, decided to enter into conversation right next to the urn, thus blocking access for other people. We all had white mugs that were mostly unchipped, though the coffee itself was distinctly average. A small tray of biscuits on a table was quickly emptied.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 – I'd be very happy here. Just a shame it's a bit of a commute from where I live.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
It made me delighted to be a Christian.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The wonderful, wonderful people.