St Peter and the Holy Rood, Thurso, Caithness, Scotland

St Peter & the Holy Rood, Thurso, Caithness, Scotland


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Mystery Worshipper: Patara
Church: St Peter & the Holy Rood
Location: Thurso, Caithness, Scotland
Date of visit: Sunday, 18 June 2006, 9:30am

The building

Late 19th century, not particularly striking exterior because overshadowed by more showy ecclesiastical edifice up the road, but the interior holds hidden treasure.

The church

I believe this is the northernmost episcopal church on the mainland of Scotland.

The neighborhood

Thurso has suffered the loss of the Dounray atomic energy station and the demise of inshore fishing. A lovely spot in high summer, with long days and nights of daylight, but must be bleak and dark mid winter. Local industry is tourism, Scrabster harbour nearby, gateway to Orkney, and visitor attractions such as John O'Groats and Castle of May.

The cast

The Revd John Stevenson, who preached and celebrated, with a male lay assistant named Brian who read the gospel and administered the chalice.

What was the name of the service?

Sung Eucharist.

How full was the building?

About 35 people, less than half full. They seemed to be professional middle class, somewhat eclectic, but I suspect quietly witnessing in the local community. No children or young teenagers at the service I attended.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Yes, someone spoke to me outside the church. The lady handing out hymn books kindly invited me to sit next to her, so I could have help in following the service. Then the minister overheard me saying where I came from, and when the service began I was officially welcomed during the opening notices.

Was your pew comfortable?

Reasonably, for a wooden pew. Most people knelt at appropriate moments, but there was a good deal of standing up and sitting down, so one had no opportunity to get really uncomfortable for long.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

People greeting each other, very friendly, but not intrusive. A devout silence once the proceedings commenced.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Good morning, everyone. Please be seated."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The Scottish Book of Common Prayer, the New English Hymnal, an in-house copy of Holy Communion 1970, the service and news-sheet for Pentecost 2 with hymns and Bible readings set out. All very user-friendly.

What musical instruments were played?

A fine organ, imported in the 70s from Lancashire, which must have been no mean feat for an amateur group of organ removers. This was played to lead a strong choir of about 12 men and women.

Did anything distract you?

The beautiful wooden reredos, which was in two sections. I worked out that the upper half was the Ascension, but was mystified and distracted by the lower half. Later I learnt it was the Descent of the Holy Spirit on Day of Pentecost – how stupid can you be not to spot that? The reredos is believed to be German in origin.

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

Fairly traditional Anglo-Catholic, with the choir bowing to the altar. I found the language dated. I kept saying "Holy Spirit", when everyone else said "Holy Ghost". Also, "Our Father which art in heaven" jarred. I would like to rewrite the liturgy. Why, for instance, have the Kyries after the absolution?

Exactly how long was the sermon?

20 minutes.

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

7 – There were no eccentricities; he was himself, and clearly much loved by his hearers. His sermon was well themed, with readings for the day and hymns, to lead into a business meeting following the service.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Stewardship of money, including diocesan shortfalls, fiscal problems, quota, logistics and geographical inferences. Continual fundraising is debilitating, so we must all give more and more regularly, financially and in kind. We shall then have greater peace of mind, and the grain of mustard seed will develop into fuller Christian commitment.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

What spoke to me was the new commandment, "Love God, love neighbour."

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

The midges of Caithness, who gave me a welcome which passed all understanding.

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

There was no chance of looking lost. Everyone was much too friendly and talkative.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

I declined coffee because they were starting a meeting in the church. I think I saw some biscuits.

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

8 – but I would need to move 700 miles north.

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

Oh, yes, very much so.

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

The warm welcome and their concern about future leadership.

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