Mystery Worshipper: John of Arc
Church: St Ebbe's
Location: Oxford, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 25 March 2007, 10:00am
St Ebbe's looks like a medieval building, but one that the Victorians had their usual wicked way with, creating a large worship space with vaulted brickwork side aisles. It is a slightly unimposing church, tucked away beside the modern Westgate shopping centre, but very close to ancient Christ Church. The church has been reordered, and now the congregation faces south toward a platform in the old south aisle, with the redundant chancel and altar to the left.
St Ebbe's has a reputation as an incredibly healthy conservative evangelical congregation in student-filled Oxford. It is a big community (self defined as the St Ebbe's family) with lots of young people and families, and a strong home group culture (as noted from the service sheet). It has recently planted a thriving church in the Oxford suburbs. They sponsor groups for youth, students, young adults and postgraduates, women, those curious about Christianity, etc. I was slightly nervous, coming from a pretty liberal Catholic background, that the conservative evangelical detectors might spot me.
It is a very central church in Oxford, in an area that can't quite decide if it's a provincial town or an ancient collegiate university city. That affects the local area – concrete slabs and heavenward-pointing spires. The church is not very far from Broad Street, where the English Catholics burned the English Protestant martyrs Latimer, Ridley and Cranmer. I wonder where they would have chosen to worship?
Service leader: the Revd Vaughan Roberts, rector. Preacher: the Revd Pete Wilkinson, associate minister and overseer of the 10.00am congregation.
What was the name of the service?The 10 o'clock service (a communion service)
How full was the building?
Very full – lots of people there, and I suspect there were quite a few standing at the back. All the areas I could see were well filled.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
A little girl (supervised by her parents) handed me a service sheet as I entered. I sat in an empty section of chairs, and was quickly joined by a woman who asked me who I was. She introduced me to a friend of hers who soon came in. The woman was incredibly friendly and welcoming. There was no sign of testing me for conservative orthodoxy!
Was your pew comfortable?
Very comfortable chair, wooden with padding. Fine for the 75 minutes or so that the service took.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Very noisy and chatty, with lots of children milling about and people catching up with each other. The opening of the service was pretty much drowned out in the hubbub.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
As far as I could hear through the hubbub, it was: "Welcome to everybody, especially anybody who is new."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The pew (chair) Bibles were New International Verson – the one on my chair was very well used, with well-thumbed pages and a re-covered spine. We were directed to refer to it during the sermon. The service was all from a specially produced sheet.
What musical instruments were played?
Piano/keyboard, guitar (I think), recorder, drum kit, and a lead singer.
Did anything distract you?
I found the building quite distracting, and kept looking at the altar in the unused chancel, trying to work out the shape of the original church and noticing that the action was framed in one of the old arches. Also, as I took notes, the friendly woman next to me seemed to be trying to read what I had put down. It felt like being back at school and attempting to avoid copying!
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The service was relaxed and informal, with modern-ish worship songs. The rector was in a soft shirt, jumper and jacket; the preacher (and half the congregation) in checked shirt and sports jacket. The clergy led with gentle linking bits between songs and prayers, and it all flowed very smoothly. The communion bit (the monthly celebration) was a fairly standard Anglican minimalist offering, using the fewest words that were needed to make it work.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – The sermon was relaxed and animated, but also well structured – the preacher said where he was going, then proceeded to go there. He used notes, with lots of double-sided printed sheets of A4, and had one or two funnies to loosen up the congregation. His theme was strongly centred on penal/substitutional atonement and the cross. He did use some standard "some of you must be struggling with these problems" lines to try to get audience participation, but it's not really an altar-call sort of place.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
To see God and your Christian life clearly, you must look through the lens of the cross. To deviate from a cross-centred Christianity leads to blurring and distortion (as with liberals and charismatics, as he mentioned).
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The welcome once I had sat down, and afterwards, when I met an acquaintance who introduced me to the rector. The obvious warmth of the community was fantastic.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
I suppose I should talk about the very conservative theology and the non-Church of England focus of the place, but they were very understated. The real bugbear for me resulted from the fact that I had chosen a seat in the second row from the back. At the communion, I discovered that you only sit there if you don't want alcoholic wine! What a letdown, to have a sip of some grape juice/non-alcoholic stuff! I'm sure it didn't affect the efficacy of the sacrament, though.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I said goodbye to the friendly lady, and straightaway bumped into an acquaintance who introduced me to the rector. We chatted for a little. He was very friendly even when he discovered which theological college I am studying at (not a conservative evangelical one). I don't think anyone lurking would have much chance of not being chatted to.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
I spent so long chatting in the church that I failed to make it over to the neighbouring church centre in time for coffee.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
4 – The community is one where you could easily belong and form friendships, but the conservative stance would give me a long term problem with the teaching.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes and I felt a genuine sense of welcome and communion as we shared the Lord's Supper. Given my nervousness about walking into the conservative evangelical lions' den (I almost didn't go in), it was a very warm and welcoming experience, one that would encourage seekers and mature Christians alike.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
Talking to the rector and being relieved when he didn't suggest taking me to be burned at the stake in Broad Street for implicitly belonging to a more liberal part of the church.