A traditional stone parish church, looking older than it is (built 1930s) and set on the corner of two roads in its own grounds. Warm and welcoming, it is well integrated with the Beacon Cafe, which forms part of the same set of buildings.
Committed to every member ministry, they seem to be a vibrant and active community. The view forward from about one-third of the way back was of predominantly grey heads, although they have two pastors dedicated to pre-school and school age children – so maybe they were all too small to be seen, or absent on the Sunday I was there.
Ferndown, in Dorset somewhat inland from the coast, is well connected to London via highways. It is noted for its 18 hole championship golf course and for the King George V Playing Fields, a well maintained recreation area that includes many facilities to suit all ages. I wasn't terribly excited about visiting Ferndown, but it scored as a place to visit in that period which could be known as Twixtmas – between Christmas and New Year – since many other churches seemed to have shut up shop. Living up to its etymology, Ferndown has plenty of trees.
The rector presided at the service. The preaching was by a lay member of the congregation who seemed to be well known and loved.
What was the name of the service?Family Service – Carols and Communion.
How full was the building?
Pretty full – probably because they normally operate two morning services, and this Twixtmas Sunday was only a single service. Pews were full – we sadly displaced a single person parked at one end of the empty pew as our group of six squeezed in (she gracefully relocated one pew further back).
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes, somewhat too frequently for my liking: on the outer door, on the inner door, in the pew as we settled, during the peace, on the way out, etc. They've definitely take the business of every member ministry to heart – at least in welcoming.
Was your pew comfortable?
Not really. Remembering my posterior's contribution to this report, I have to assume it was. From what I remember there were upholstered pads on the pews.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
A good buzz, with lots of greeting of each other, and anticipation.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
'Welcome, everyone. Welcome on this last Sunday of 2018.' That's a greeting you can only use once! The rector did a good job of connecting in a very human way with the congregation, and seemed very at ease in her own skin, as did those around us.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
None – all led from the screen over the chancel step, with additional monitors for those in hard to reach places.
What musical instruments were played?
The only instrument used was the keyboard, played standing up by a worship leader whose style suggested a bit of an affection for layered synth tones. My personal preference would have been for a bit fewer synth strings backfilling the space under piano notes, but I'm sure it worked well for some people.
Did anything distract you?
I continued to be slightly distracted during the service by anxiety that we had displaced a parishioner in our enthusiasm for filling the pew. Seven would have been possible, but she obviously wasn't keen on being jostled by strangers as part of her worship experience. The lack of children, in a church with two children's pastors, also niggled during the family service, although I'm generously putting that down to the strange effects of Twixtmas. My final distraction was trying to see round the screen to the large wooden cross, seemingly planted in the step in front of the altar, to see if it really was as large as it looked.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Billed as Carols and Communion, the service might have more aptly been called Not Quite Enough Carols, Several Pretty Average Worship Songs, and Communion. The worship was neither happy clappy nor stiff-upper-lip. There were a few raised hands, but no ecstatic shouts or rhythmic fills by the congregation. There was a laid back vibe to the communion service – some use of liturgy, but all from a projector, and a creditable ad lib from the rector when her expected prayer didn't emerge. The preacher also had to ad lib when one if his sermon slides (the grand finale slide) didn't appear.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 — I did learn that the UK is the nation with the most clothes per resident – 26kg apparently – nearly twice as many as those in Italy have. The theatrical smashing of a plate kept us focused (how?) but it left me feeling a bit like people (especially the unconverted) were seen as projects rather than as beings created in God's image and with his potential for relationship with us and with others.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Stop worrying about stuff and focus on the evangelistic imperative of the 9000 (apparently) in the neighbourhood not in church that morning (probably not counting the missing children). Sadly the preacher didn't explain how the 9000 would fit into St Mary's, even with two services. The idea behind the sermon (I think) was that we have a gift to share with others.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
I loved the way the rector's daughter unashamedly and very matter-of-factly went to stand with her mother and jointly received and held the plate as the offering was brought forward. If nothing else, that would have encouraged me to come again.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
You might have guessed – but the synth strings underlying every song were too much for me. Echoes of things best left in the 80s.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
They had a pretty well developed queuing system for shaking hands and saying good-bye. Twixtmas rules meant that there were no refreshments (not sure why, unless it's the absent children's job), but hanging around outside resulted in someone greeting us and encouraging us.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
No refreshments. More charitably, I'm sure that it was because everyone was taking a well-earned rest after a busy Christmas period, and before launching into their efforts to get the 9000 others to come and enjoy the worship.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 — It would definitely be on my list as a possibility if I were moving into the area.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
It encouraged me to think that there was a healthy cohort of predominantly recently retired people to share the message in Ferndown. I'm just not sure I would want to be on the receiving end of the few that might have a rather earnest project-minded approach to trying to get me to become a Christian if I wasn't already.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
Signs of grace: child's hands on the offering plate, and the unaffected generosity of a leader committed to her work.