Mystery Worshipper: Chris Churchcrawler
Church: St Mary the Virgin
Location: Shepperdine, Gloucestershire, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 3 August 2014, 4:30pm
A very small tin (actually corrugated galvanised iron) church dating from around 1914 and featured in the book Tin Tabernacles by Ian Smith. This type of church used to be common and was meant for temporary use while a more permanent structure was built. Tin churches are rare nowadays, and the fact that this one is still standing is very special. It is kept in order by a very dedicated member of the congregation. The interior is wooden top to bottom, much like a boat, with a single row of pews separated from the altar by a carved wooden rail. The window frames are wooden and not pointed, and are a later addition.
It is a very rural church set in the middle of fields and attracts a small congregation from the farms around it, as well as visitors in the summer. The church is part of the united benefice of Thornbury. Services are held here only once or twice each month, but the church is always open for visitors.
Shepperdine is a hamlet on the northern edge of South Gloucestershire. The River Severn estuary is close by, with views to the Forest of Deane on the other side of the river. There is a farm nearby, and sometimes in the summer cows wander into the churchyard. In 2009 a German power company began to acquire land to be used for a nuclear power plant, a project that has met with fierce local opposition.
The Revd Tom Keates, assistant curate for the benefice.
What was the name of the service?Evensong.
How full was the building?
I had gone out for a cycle ride without intending to visit the church. However, I saw some cars pulling into a lay-by and some ladies chatting in the field, so I popped my head into through the church door. The assistant curate asked, "Are you staying?" and so I did! There were a few other people who had been walking along the river bank and had seen the church and had also decided to attend. There were about 16 people in the congregation, which filled up most of the tiny space.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes, the lady who has been so dedicated in keeping St Mary's running.
Was your pew comfortable?
Very comfortable - one of eight, so I sat near the back. Everybody else did too.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Chatty and friendly. Some people were out in the field. The organist played through some of the hymns lightly whilst people were chatting.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good evening on this glorious summer evening!"
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Mission Praise and the 1662 evening service. I enjoyed the old words of evensong.
What musical instruments were played?
An ancient electronic organ, which was OK for the size of the building. It was played by an elderly but friendly organist.
Did anything distract you?
Yes, lots! The inside of the building was like being in a boat with a plank ceiling and walls. Also the trappings of summer: the sounds of animals, the aroma of sweet peas and the fresh country air made this a lovely place of worship. Also the Victorian lamp brackets and old sepia-tinted photos fit right in with the age of the building.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was solidly rural Anglican with some formalities. The psalms were chanted, although took a bit of getting used to. The singing was actually quite strong and the organ was well played, which I hadn't expected for such an isolated church. The hymns were lovely! "Jesus lover of my soul," "Angel voices ever singing" and a nod to the age of the building with "Tell me the old old story."
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 – The assistant curate had a down-to-earth friendly style, drawing from aspects of everyday life.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
It was about the feeding of the five thousand. He talked about the importance of food banks. Even though we might not have much, it is worth giving something. He quoted mother Teresa, who said, "If you can't feed a hundred children, feed one!"' He also reflected on post-war rationing and drew parallels with Isaiah 58:10 ("If you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday"). He suggested that as well as feeding in the physical sense, Isaiah was writing about spiritual feeding.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Simply being in a rural place, singing some wonderful old hymns as the late afternoon summer sun beamed through the windows.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Realising yet again I had only come out with a few pence to put in the collection hence my embarrassment when the collection plate came round. Also worried whether hay fever would come, but lucky for me it didn't.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
We had a chat, said good-bye and I hopped on my bike and cycled to the river bank. Sad to notice a nearby old farmhouse boarded up with "Keep Out" notices.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
None today. Had some water in my bike panniers.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 – Yes. This isolated place has a traditional style of worship that I cherish.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes it did, and it was rather like worshiping on holiday. It is good to see that rural Anglican worship is still hanging on, if only by a thread, in these parts. I was also impressed with the efforts of the lady who looks after the church and keeps the doors open.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The summer feel of the church near the river bank, and the boat-like feel of the church. I hope it will be here in 100 years time.