St Mary's, Hugh Town, Isles of Scilly

St Mary's, Hugh Town, Isles of Scilly


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Mary's
Location: Hugh Town, Isles of Scilly
Date of visit: Sunday, 28 March 2010, 12:00am

The building

A small simple building dating from 1900. It is in the traditional Methodist style, with pews and balcony. On the day of my visit it was decorated with some beautiful banners.

The church

This church came about from the merger of three Methodist congregations. It appears to play an important part in this small island community. In addition to Sunday worship, they hold fellowship and educational sessions during the week. The community and the church were featured in the recent BBC TV programme An Island Parish.

The neighborhood

The Isles of Scilly form an archipelago off the southwestern tip of England's Cornish peninsula. There are five inhabited islands and several more small rocky islets. The climate is temperate compared to that of England, but they sometimes feel the brunt of harsh winter gales. Tourism dominates the economy. The church is situated at the heart of Hugh Town, Scilly's capital. With a walk of a few yards you are at the sea shore. Stunning scenery is all around.

The cast

The Revd Charles R. Gibbs, minister, assisted by Mrs Beryl Read, circuit steward.

What was the name of the service?

Morning Service.

How full was the building?

About half full downstairs and a few up in the balcony.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Not really. As I entered the church, someone said, "I hope it stops raining for you soon."

Was your pew comfortable?

No, they were quite uncomfortable. Some people in the know within the congregation were being offered cushions during the first hymn. Visitors didnt seem to have this option!

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

People were talking as we were waiting to start. There was what seemed to me to be some rather monotonous music from the digital keyboard. Whether it was being played by a live musician or was merely a digital sound track, it was hard to tell. It sounded rather like a backing track and didn't add to the preparation for worship. Just before the service started, the music seemed to spring to life (perhaps being played for real), and was much better.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Good morning and a very warm welcome to you all."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Hymns and Psalms (Methodist Publishing House) and a printed sheet of hymns.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ, played beautifully for the hymns; and a keyboard and clarinet for worship songs. The keyboard had a backing track constantly playing, which didn't add to the worshipful effect. Both the keyboard player and clarinetist appeared to be able musicians and could have managed perfectly well without the backing.

Did anything distract you?

It was cold (probably because I was seated next to the window) and I had come in out of a downpour. The microphone was not working very well and people kept tapping it to see if it was amplifying their voice.

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

Quite informal style with a mixture of hymns, prayers and readings led jointly by the minister and worship leader. There were references in the service that I considered bordering on being sexist (asking men if they remembered "hour-glass" figures) and racist (referring to the dark colour of an African man's face). I felt very uncomfortable with these references.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

11 minutes.

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

4 – The minister walked up and down the aisles, which was rather offputting.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The sermon went through the events of Palm Sunday and Holy Week. It talked about how we are sometimes disappointed in other people. Jesus would know this feeling too, but he knew God's will and was resolute in following it. Our mission is to tell others about Jesus and how our knowledge of him affects our own lives.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The prayers were helpful, and the song "Soften my heart" was inspiring. We were asked to pray in turn for those people who sat around us, which was very powerful. There was one point in the service were I got the sense that spiritual renewal may be about to happen here.

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

Apparently many of the children on the island had chickenpox so were not there. The children's segment went ahead anyway, and some adults were asked to do a word puzzle while we sang a hymn and watched them. There was an awkward pause at the end of the hymn while they tried to finish it off, and we just waited while very little happened.

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

After the service, I walked through the church to the hall and hung around in the hall with my cup of tea. Then I walked all the way out through the church with people still busying around. But no one spoke to me until right by the outside door, when the two leading the service said hello. Outside the church there is a list of 10 "things you need to know about the Methodist Church on the Isles of Scilly." The first thing on the list is, "We will make you welcome." I'm afraid that was not my experience. The second thing should have been, "We will offer you a cushion."

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

The tea was fine and in a pottery cup, but the tea bags on show in the kitchen were not fairly traded. There's a co-op supermarket just down the road selling fair trade tea.

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

3 – There is little choice on St Mary's and this is the only free church. However, the service had very little challenge. It seemed to assume people knew everything already and were coming together for a social occasion. This is a real shame if it is reflected every week, as there are large numbers of visitors to the island. The church is missing a great opportunity for outreach.

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

The beauty of the islands themselves was what made me feel glad to be a Christian.

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

Those glimpses that spiritual renewal might just be on its way in this church.

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