Mystery Worshipper: Roundabout
Church: Southampton University Chaplaincy
Location: Highfield Campus, Southampton, England
Date of visit: Wednesday, 1 March 2006, 3:32pm
The chaplaincy is located in a converted, detached house, dating from the early 20th century. The lounge/dining room of the building has been knocked through to provide a large worship or social area.
As a university chaplaincy, it offers something for everyone: worship in the main Christian traditions represented by the chaplains, a listening ear to the religious or non-religious, and generally, pastoral support for the university at large. The demographics of chaplaincy users reflect the university community – mostly students in the 18-30 age range, with a handful of staff.
The building is at the southernmost edge of the university of Southampton's Highfield Campus. Nearby is a new sports centre, administration and library buildings, with the bulk of the university's science and engineering buildings and laboratories within a few minutes walk.
Rev Simon Stephens, Anglican chaplain, led the service.
What was the name of the service?In one flyer I saw written, "An Ecumenical service for Lent", but on the service sheet it was described as "A Lentern [sic] service"
How full was the building?
The worship room was comfortably full. There were, I think, 17 of us, although people popped in and out during the course of the service. A different arrangement of the chairs might have fitted in a handful more, but it was cosy.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
I looked a little lost, came into the room a bit early and asked, "Is this where the service is?" Two people stopped their talking to confirm this. I sat down near them and after that it was deafening silence until the rest of the congregation walked in, most of whom, I'm guessing from the noise, had come from the kitchen area. The chaplain said "hello" as he handed out the service sheets.
Was your pew comfortable?
It was a newish low armchair, beloved of academic common rooms everywhere. Very comfortable indeed, though had the room been in a summer heat wave and the service a little less stimulating, I might have been tempted to drop off to sleep.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
I could hear a conversation about giving up chocolate biscuits taking place in the kitchen ajoining the worship room, but mostly it was quiet. There was a little faffing before the service – organising readers, playing with the CD player – but nothing I wouldn't expect in this sort of place.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
Due to the cosiness of the room, I couldn't scribble it down, but it was a version of Psalm 51:17: "The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
A plain typed A4 sheet had the order of service and the words of the two pieces we sang.
What musical instruments were played?
A piano was played to accompany the two sung bits, – "Abba Father" and a Taize Chant – and CD backing music was used effectively at parts of the service.
Did anything distract you?
This is a place designed for dropping in and dropping out, so it's hardly surprising people came and went. However, the door opening and closing every few minutes was a little distracting.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
This was ecumenical, alt-style worship, marking of the start of Lent: candles were lit, stones held, and a bowl of water was provided to use at will to feel cleansed from sins. The atmosphere and style was informal and relaxed.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
The discussion time was 17 minutes long.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 – It's pretty hard to give a mark for this type of thing, but the chaplain led it well.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
There wasn't a sermon, but the dicussion time focused on forgiveness, mortality, discipline and guilt. We were split into four groups and asked to discuss a couple of quesions, and then ideas were pooled as a group. It worked well with the community there, though it certainly wouldn't be everyone's cup of tea.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
During a reflective time, people went up as they wanted to (no Anglican-style queueing here!) to use the water and stones display as they wished to feel cleansed by God's forgiveness, to let go of sins, or just to go and have a wash. Well, maybe not the last option, but I suppose the Holy Spirit leads people to wash themselves sometimes?Most people went up and this time felt quiet, contemplative and unrushed. It was a good time to feel in the presence of God.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
There were a few pregnant pauses during the discussion-in-groups phase, which is always a possibility when you group people together who don't know each other. And sometimes the backing music was a little too odd for me. Quiet, soft, electro-classical rocky stuff only holds my attention for a certain amount of time.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
The chaplain did say, "Whose turn is it to put the kettle on?" but no one said anything to me explicitly. If everyone was new to that service, maybe no one realised I wasn't part of the usual crowd, or maybe it was the fact that it was clear I had to dash to get to a meeting. I didn't feel unwelcomed, but it felt slightly awkward, as most of the people there clearly knew each other.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Sadly I didn't have time to sample it. I'm sure it was fairly traded though.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
6 – It's not really a possibility, it not being a church, but I could be inspired to go along more often.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
A paperchain hanging on the wall around a modern art religious picture. I'm sure it wasn't deliberate, but I wondered if this was a new style of veneration of icons.