St Ebbe's, Oxford, England


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Ebbe's
Location: Oxford, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 22 September 2019, 9:45am

The building

St Ebbe's is an old building in the centre of Oxford, a little incongruous next to the modern Westgate Shopping Centre, with a large multi-storey car park inside for the congregation (and shoppers) to leave their cars. The church has been used for Christian worship since the 8th century, but the current building was mostly constructed between 1814-1816, replacing an earlier building that had been declared dangerous and so was demolished except for the tower and southwest corner. There is still a Norman doorway.

The church

There are four services during term time and three the rest of the year. The 11.45 is attended mostly by students, hence does not run during the university holidays. Being that it is a city centre church, I imagine most people are not very local to the church. They do have several groups mentioned on their website, including Celebrate Recovery and an outreach to the homeless community.

The neighborhood

This is a city centre church. The immediate neighbourhood consists of retail outlets such as John Lewis & Partners, a high-end department store; Paul UK, a bakery/café with a passion for cakes, French bread, and coffee; and Debenhams, known for clothing, household items and furniture. Oxford itself is a famous university town, hence the large student population. St Ebbe's is in central Oxford, surrounded by the main shopping district, and some (I imagine) high-priced apartments.

The cast

The service was led by one of the associate ministers, and another associate minister preached.

What was the name of the service?

‘The 9.45.’

How full was the building?

It was busy. Downstairs was completely full, and upstairs looked pretty packed too, although I couldn’t see clearly from my seat. The children left after the second song, but it didn’t seem to get any quieter, so perhaps there were some latecomers as well who did a swap with the younger members of the congregation. I don’t know how many the church holds, but I would estimate 500-600 were at this service.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

No. I even missed out on a service sheet. To be fair, I was walking in with my wife, daughter and a friend, and I had a handful, so perhaps the person with the service sheets didn’t want to overload me. I got a smile though! After we sat down, I got chatting to the man next to me, and it turned out we have a friend in common – how strange. Then shortly before the service started, one of the associate ministers spotted us as new faces (which was impressive in such a busy church) and came to have a friendly chat.

Was your pew comfortable?

It was very comfortable chair – metal frame, soft padding, cloth cover. The deep red was rather fetching and contrasted nicely with the white-washed interior walls.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Busy and buzzy – lots of people talking to each other, and the band finishing off a pre-service rehearsal. It came across as a very lively and vibrant church.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

‘Welcome to St Ebbe’s.’ Not very original, but it did the job just fine.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

There was a printed service sheet on two pages covering the layout of the service, and any notices. It also included the words to the hymns. The Bibles were New International Version, 2011 Edition.

What musical instruments were played?

There was no organ! An old church with no organ? I certainly couldn’t see one, and neither could Mrs Charles, who, as an organist herself, has a nose for these things. This was a real disappointment. There was, however, a very good band consisting of keyboard, cello, rhythm guitar and electric guitar. There was a drum kit but apparently no one to play it. They were very good, if very slightly too loud for comfort.

Did anything distract you?

I stayed for the first two songs, then took Little Miss Charles to the Sunday school. I wasn’t gone for long, then came back in. As the service went on, I was surprised that we didn’t say the Lord’s Prayer, which became progressively more distracting as the service continued. I finally came to the conclusion that I’d missed it, but Mrs Charles informed me that, in fact, it hadn’t been said. I go to many different styles of churches, and I have always found the Lord’s Prayer to be something of a staple of most services – but not, apparently, in Oxford!

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

This was a fairly conservative evangelical service – definitely not happy-clappy. Being similar to my regular church, it felt very comfortable being there. There were one or two hand-wavers, but most people definitely kept hold of a book, service sheet, or other such anchor to prevent them going wild.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

32 minutes

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

10 — The preacher was very engaging and very funny, managing to work into a passage from Zechariah a story about his student son living in squalour.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The passage was Zechariah 5-6 (Zechariah sees a variety of prophetic visions), specifically the last three visions, and was about clearing out the sin from the Jews. The Jews were having an easier life in Babylonia than here, and it was important to sweep away the mess and clean up the people. Metaphorically. There were two main utterances from God: ‘I will return to you’ and ‘Return to me.’ Idolatry was represented by a woman, who was Ashera – an idol of the time. We all have our idols today as well, and we shouldn’t put them before God.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The electric guitarist – he played some great little fills in the first hymn particularly, which I always love to hear when there’s a band, rather than someone just strumming.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

The electric guitarist – the poor chap had his volume turned down so low that I could barely hear his interesting guitar fills over the other instruments. Very frustrating!

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

Now this was a funny end to the service. I see why they did it, as the church was very busy, but coffee was brought round to our seats rather than the congregation having to go up and get it. Whilst it was nice to have waiter service, it kind-of meant that we continued speaking to the people from the beginning of the service rather than mingling and meeting others in the congregation. Perhaps several hundred people queuing for coffee would have been unmanageable. I was impressed that they managed to serve at our seats and the coffee to be hot still when it arrived! We had a chat with another associate minister, who told us a little about the church, the youth work, and other churches in the area.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

It was coffee. I don’t get very excited by such things, but it was pleasant enough. I liked that it was in a compostable cup rather than plastic.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

9 — I liked St Ebbe’s a lot, and will definitely be coming back. The only things that put me off were the lack of an organ (I know, it’s not about the organ, but I like a little bit of tradition) and the volume of the music, which was a little painful on the ears.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

Yes, definitely, although the Lord’s Prayer would have been nice.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

That poor guitarist who presumably practised and participated, but wasn’t heard.

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