Mystery Worshipper: SuperKnitter
Church: North Road Methodist
Location: Durham, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 15 January 2012, 10:30am
A moderately large, imposing mid-19th century building, with columns at the entrance, but somehow squat and square at the same time. Inside, it's been recently refurbished, and is very light and airy. There's a balcony that stretches around three sides of the building, with the pipes for the organ on the fourth side. On the ground floor, rows of chairs with a central aisle face the communion table, behind which is a beautiful driftwood cross. There were very few other adornments in the church.
There seems to be a busy schedule of Bible studies, men's breakfasts, choir practice, women's groups, and a mission course. They appear to have close links with the other inner-city Methodist church, Elvet Methodist.
North Road is one of the main shopping areas in Durham, albeit the cheaper end, and not situated on the peninsula itself. Close by are most of Durham's charity shops, the bus station, and residential housing. The cathedral, the castle, and the wonderful railway viaduct lie within sight, which leads to a slightly odd mix of glorious ancient beauty and slightly run-down modernity.
No one was introduced before or during the service. A gentleman stood up at the beginning to make a couple of announcements, but otherwise no one else took part in leading the service.
What was the name of the service?Sunday Morning Worship.
How full was the building?
The ground floor was around half full, but the balcony wasn't being used. The congregation were made up of about 70 per cent over 50s, with a few students and younger couples. Although the church advertises a Young Church also held at 10.30, I saw no sign of this anywhere.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
As I entered, I was handed the hymn books with a handshake and a friendly greeting of "Welcome." At the first opportunity after the service, two people bounded up to me to welcome me and find out who I was.
Was your pew comfortable?
The pews were cushioned chairs. The backs were too upright for me the top edge dug into my back slightly. But otherwise they were very comfortable. A nice touch was that the rows were spaced with plenty of leg room, without feeling too spread out.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
There was a gentle hum of chatter. People clearly expected the service to start on time, because everyone arrived with plenty of time. In the notice sheet, it said, "We start with a time of quiet preparation during the playing of 'Be Still.'" This was not followed by many people, who only quietened when the minister came in from the vestry, half way through.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning! Before we start, we've got two very nice announcements to make." Following these announcements of births, the service began properly with: "Jesus said: 'I am the gate. Whoever enters through me will be saved.'"
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Hymns and Psalms and the church's own collection: North Road Methodist Favourites, Old and New. There was no Bible within sight, so I am unsure what version was used.
What musical instruments were played?
Organ and piano.
Did anything distract you?
The minister's microphone was clicking, crackling and squeaking every time he spoke. I suspect it was rubbing on his jacket, because when he was making bigger gestures it got worse.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
This was traditional Methodist hymn sandwich, with two "modern" songs thrown in (I don't think either were post-1990). The congregation were singing louder than some I've heard, but were somehow lacklustre and unenthusiastic. Somewhat like school assemblies, when you know you're going to get told off if you don't sing, but you don't really want to. Even when the choir got up to sing a song, though they were making a good attempt at four part harmonies mostly in tune, it still sounded like they were bored!
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – The preacher was relaxed, and came up with good explanations of what he meant, but I think he pushed his "door" metaphor a bit far. But there was nothing earth shattering, or anything that gave me a new perspective on the subject. This, of course, may not have been true for everyone.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Good decision making is necessary for good stewardship. Doors can represent decisions that we have to make, and in making the decision, we might have to face something scary. Sometimes they are escape routes from something we find difficult or scary. How do we know what decision to make? Jesus says he is the gate, the door. But this doesn't mean we will hear his voice clearly, or that the decision will be easy. Samuel had to learn to hear God's voice, and then what God wanted him to do was very hard.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The organist/pianist was particularly good, and the piece after the service was wonderful to hear.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The performance of the choir. Although it was a perfectly acceptable performance (despite, as previously stated, lacklustre), it was just that: a performance. At the beginning we were told, "Why should the Salvation Army have all the best tunes?" but with no further explanation of its relevance to the service. It felt slightly too much like showing off, or doing it just for the fun of it.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I wasn't given the chance to hang around looking lost I was pounced on by two women almost as soon as the service had finished. When I went downstairs for a cup of tea, another lady started talking to me, and others who overheard soon joined the conversation.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
The tea was refreshingly strong and was served in a cup with saucer, always difficult to balance when having to deal with the thick layers a frosty January morning in the north of England brings. I did find out that mugs were also available after I got my tea.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 – The community were very friendly, but it's also a touch on the traditional side for my taste, and a little more enthusiasm for worship would be good.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, it's always good to go to a church whose congregation are that welcoming.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
Probably the beautiful cross on the wall behind the communion table, and the organist.