Mystery Worshipper: Isla White
Church: Roehampton Methodist
Location: Roehampton, London
Date of visit: Sunday, 27 May 2018, 12:00pm
A community hall adjacent to the shopping precinct in a run-down mid 20th century council estate. It is a good sized community hall with a stage. In front of the stage was a chair and a coffee table on which stood a candle. About 12 chairs were placed in two semicircles beyond the coffee table; the rest of the hall was empty.
They are part of a local ecumenical project that includes Holy Trinity Church, Roehampton. The Methodist minister shares in the service at Holy Trinity once a month, usually on the second Sunday. The vicar of the Anglican church took the service on the day we were there; it was not clear how often he does this. Their website describes them as "a small, fragile community that ... is aware of how difficult it is to maintain a worshipping witness in the challenging environment of the Alton Estate, but believes that it is important to do so."
The Alton Estate, dating from 1952, is one of the largest council estates in the UK. A mixture of Scandinavian inspired and brutalist (a la the Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier) styles, it was hailed in its day as something of a wonder. None other than Nikolaus Pevsner called it "brilliant." But brutalist architecture, once highly praised, has since been blamed for the breakdown of social cohesion. And concrete facades do not weather well. We spotted rubbish being stored on some balconies. The Alton Estate has also appeared in TV detective programmes as a visual cliche for a crime ridden area. The church is located in the worst area of the estate and some in our group commented that they would not want to walk through it on their own at night. There were weeds growing through the concrete paving around the community centre and rubbish dumped in the car park. The estate stands in sharp contrast to Richmond Park, onto which it backs. Created by Charles I in the 17th century as a deer park, Richmond is the largest (3.7 square miles) of London's Royal Parks, which were originally the preserve of the Monarch but are now open to the public. It is of national and international importance for wildlife conservation. Both red and fallow deer roam freely there. The closer one gets to Richmond Park, the more one notices dwellings clearly in much better condition, with expensive cars parked nearby.
The Revd Jim McKinney.
What was the name of the service?Nothing at all was written on the service sheet. The website describes it as "Afternoon service in a more modern style."
How full was the building?
When my husband and I arrived five minutes before the service was due to start, we doubled the congregation! The vicar arrived a little later, and three other people dribbled in the last after the sermon had ended.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
As we entered, one of the two seated women looked round and in surprise and delight asked, "Are you joining us?" She then asked where we were from and how long we would be there for (we were in town for a meeting and were staying at a nearby Christian conference centre).
Was your pew comfortable?
Padded chair, comfortable but noisy if moved across the wooden floor.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
As there were originally only four of us (then five, then six) before the service started, there was one conversation that included everybody. When the vicar started talking about the symbol of the Trinity on the front of the service sheet, I wondered if the service had already started. But it hadn't, until he said, in a matter-of-fact voice ...
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"So, let's begin."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Singing the Faith and a service sheet containing the collect and readings. The sheet had been used that morning at Trinity Church, from which the vicar had come.
What musical instruments were played?
None. Their website shows a picture of a young girl playing the violin, but none was present. The vicar said that one of the ladies would sing the first line of the hymn to give us the tune, then we would all start singing the hymn from the beginning. He then looked at me and my husband and invited us, as the visitors, to choose the first hymn. We couldn't think of one on the spur of the moment about the Trinity, so we chose an old favourite. Unfortunately the lady got the tune wrong, so I had to start it. When the vicar chose the second hymn, the lady said she didn't know the tune, so again I started it. For the subsequent hymns (all chosen at random) the vicar said "1,2,3" and everyone started singing in the hope that we had all chosen the same tune and same starting note.
Did anything distract you?
An elderly lady, who arrived immediately before the service began, rustled about in a plastic bag for things, then kept dragging her chair forward until she was sitting right next to the table behind which the vicar sat. She commented on things throughout the service. At one point in the sermon she said something that knocked the vicar completely off his stride. Some of her suggestions were spectacularly wrong. The vicar described the symbol of the Trinity as being like God dancing, with the Father, Son and Spirit having their arms on each others shoulders like ... "Dervishes!" the lady suggested. "Russian dancers, I was going to say," the vicar replied. Read on for more of her contributions to the service.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Completely informal. The service sheet included the collect of the day, which the vicar described as being the most complicated collect there was. The parish website describes the service as being in "a more modern style." The hymns had not been planned, so the lady who kept commenting on things said that if we couldn't think of anything else, we would have to sing "Amazing Grace" "And I'll dance to it!" she added. She stepped behind the chairs during the singing of the remaining hymns, and when I took a surreptitious peek, I saw her waving her hands about as we sang.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
20 minutes but longer if you include the introductory remarks on the theme both before the service started and between the hymns and readings.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
5 – Rather complicated and sometimes esoteric, particularly when he described the theology of the Trinity as "mathematics, geometry, trigonometry" and talked about gold not combining with other elements to form oxide, as lead does. He also opined that the phrase "whose property is always to have mercy" in the prayer of humble access was improperly changed to "whose nature ..." in the 20th century Book of Alternative Services, and that calling the Sundays after Trinity "Sundays after Pentecost" is also improper.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The traditional symbol of the Trinity is instantly recognizable. It is an illustration that offers us a way in. The Trinity is like a dance, with each member in perfect harmony feeling every nuance of what the others are doing. Thats why God cannot "go off" us, because it would require all three persons to "go off" us at the same time. The power, vigour and activity of the Trinity generates love that erupts into our lives.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Recognising that the Christian family is made up of all sorts.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The tinny sound of a mobile phone ring-tone loudly playing a piece of jazzy classical music not once, but TWICE! It belonged to the lady sitting next to me and was in the basket of her mobility trolley, so it took quite some finding. She hadn't turned it off after it disrupted the beginning of the service, and its second interruption was during the sermon.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
The minute the service ended, one of the ladies called over to us, "You must stay for refreshments." Various people spoke to us at length.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Proper cups with freshly brewed tea. Sponge cake with butter icing topped with extremely sweet children's candy, plus shortbread.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 – Purely out of pity for those who so much want to maintain a witness in a difficult estate. The notice sheet contained the names of 22 people to pray for, yet there was only a handful of people in the congregation.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The look of delight on the lady's face when we arrived.