St Mary's, Shirehampton (Exterior)

St Mary's, Shirehampton, Bristol, England


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Mary's
Location: Shirehampton, Bristol, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 4 August 2013, 10:00am

The building

There was a chapel-of-ease at Shirehampton here in 1579, which was replaced in 1727, rebuilt and enlarged in 1827, and became a parish church in 1844. But that building was destroyed by fire in 1928. Work on the current church began in 1929, and the church was consecrated two years from the day the old building was destroyed, 15th January 1930. It was totally refurbished and redecorated in 2002, when the old seating was replaced by comfortable chairs. The west two bays of the aisles were converted into a church office, a storeroom, accessible toilet facilities, and a much used catering kitchen. The Lady chapel was enclosed by a glazed screen and a memorial chapel provided as the church has a large funeral ministry. One third of the nave, at the back, is used as a meeting space.

The church

In 1996, this church came in second in the national competition sponsored by the Ecclesiastical Insurance Group: "Your Church in a Changing Society." They had seen a seven-fold increase in the congregation during the previous five years. They run a variety of activities, including a credit union partnership (and that was started well before the recent suggestion by the Archbishop of Canterbury), the Avon Autistic Association, Alpha, food bank collections, golden oldies, mothers union, toddler group, and many others. The local councillor and the police beat group hold their surgeries here. In addition, the doors of the church are open wide every day and there are benches where people sit and chat. Their claim to be at the heart of the community is justified – and, sadly, unusual today.

The neighborhood

People still think of Shirehampton as a village though it has become a suburb of Bristol on the far north west corner, largely separated from the rest of Bristol by a large swathe of parkland. The bustling high street, in which the church is set, is unusual in that there are lots of local shops with their own style. There are four takeaways of various kinds. There is a newly built health centre a dental practice. Shirehampton was in the forefront of the garden suburb movement, aimed at creating decent and well-designed housing estates.

The cast

The Revd Trevor Hearn, a retired priest from the congregation filling in the priest-in-charge, who is on holiday, was celebrant and preacher. He was assisted by Gill Sawyer, reader, who led the first part of the service.

What was the name of the service?

Holy Communion

How full was the building?

About two-thirds seventy people. Someone told me that there were usually more but this is the holiday season.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

A man on the door said, "Good morning." And another person smiled whilst handing me a hymn book.

Was your pew comfortable?

Yes. A blue padded chair.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Chatty, catching up on the news of the week.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Good morning to you and do sit down" followed by some notices.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Hymns Old and New and a locally produced service booklet for the Trinity season.

What musical instruments were played?


Did anything distract you?

The flow and pace of the liturgy were disturbed by people not being on cue, sloppy vestments, no manual actions over the bread and wine during the words of institution.

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

Standard, middle of the road C of E – a good balance between the formal and the informal.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

19 minutes.

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

7 – The Revd Mr Hearn spoke without notes. He covered the readings and weaved in some personal anecdotes and topical references. I was irritated, however, by his frequent assertion that "its hard to understand."

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Sometimes we dont see the wood for the trees. When we give our lives to Christ, we should give up greed and the lust for power. While the secular world dances to a different tune the war in Syria, Internet trolls we have a security that the world cannot give. How are we different from twenty years ago?

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

Nothing in the worship moved me to elation or penitence, but then I like worship to avoid sentimentality or whipped-up emotion. It was good to see lots of lay involvement and particularly good to see a reader up front, competently leading worship (so many readers complain that they are underused.) I was also pleased that the choir did a good job despite their being small in number.

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

Everyone going walkabout during the peace. But that is my personal taste as an introvert and Id have to find something to do if I was a regular. I know that a lot of people value this part of the worship almost as much as receiving communion. And I suppose Id rather feel awkward for a few minutes than be in a frosty, cheerless church.

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

Someone said hello, asked me if I was new and where I was from, etc.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

As buses are rare on Sunday mornings, I had to scoot off or else face a long wait. However, I noted that coffee was served in proper cups from a proper kitchen and that people sat at tables (much to be preferred form proper conversation as opposed to the idle chatter in churches where people stand around in cliques.)

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

7 – In fact, its a real possibility, since I have considered retiring here when my arthritis gets bad enough. There are affordable bungalows in the area and there is so much going on that I could make friends easily. Its not my churchmanship but there is nothing objectionable either.

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

Yes. Good to know of a community doing outreach without being precious or pious.

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

Negatively, the last hymn typical Graham Kendrick earworm. Positively, a thriving community doing mission and service without the cringe factor.

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