Mystery Worshipper: Benny Diction
Church: Union Church
Location: Hunstanton, Norfolk, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 30 December 2007, 10:30am
A fairly typical nonconformist chapel dating from the late 19th century. We were a bit confused about where the entrance was. It is at the side in order to make disabled access easier, as the building is on a hill. Inside it was fairly large, with lovely art nouveau style windows that depict the Tree of Life.
Union Church is a join Baptist/URC church. I wasn't able to establish when the two congregations joined. On the day of our visit, most of the people in attendance appeared to be age 50 and above, although there are apparently some younger people around as our youngest member was invited to go to Sunday school. Everyone was smartly dressed, with most of the men in suits and ties. (Our group was in jeans and casual wear, but the welcome was such that we didn’t feel out of place.) Their website shows them involved in a mix of activities, including coffee mornings, prayer meetings, Brownies, a women’s fellowship, and ecumenical activities.
Hunstanton is a small seaside town situated on the north Norfolk coast – although, as the locals point out, it actually faces west. And so the sun sets over the sea – unusual in the east of England! The church is located fairly near the sea front overlooking a very attractive green. Hunstanton and the surrounding area is lovely and we were surprised at how many people were around, considering our visit was at the end of December and most seaside towns are quiet that time of the year.
The service was led by Enid Headon, a lay preacher who lives in the area.
What was the name of the service?Family Service, although other than a children's address there wasn't much for families.
How full was the building?
The church was probably about three-quarters full, so around 50 or 60 people perhaps. That said, our party was 16 in number, so we helped to swell the ranks considerably.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
As we tried to find the entrance, some members of the congregation said, "Good morning. You must be visitors!" and showed us the way in. A door steward said good morning and gave us a hymn book and a notice sheet.
Was your pew comfortable?
Wooden chairs with cushions. They tended to give a bit of a numb bum and weren't very good on the back either. That said, I was suffering with a back problem at the time so perhaps I'm being a bit harsh.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Chatty. Many people were seeing each other for the first time since Christmas, so there was lots of talk about how Christmas had been.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning. I hope you all had a good Christmas."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Mission Praise plus The Holy Bible, New International Version.
What musical instruments were played?
Did anything distract you?
I was distracted by a door adjacent to the pulpit with the word "Toilet" on it. As a preacher myself, I know the feeling of sometimes needing the loo halfway through a service. But it seemed weird actually seeing a toilet next to the pulpit. No doubt it wasn't just for the exclusive use of the preacher.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The leader, Mrs Headon, clearly wanted the service to be joyful and uplifting. But the organist resisted (and we'll come to him later). So in the end the service was a bit sombre, unfortunately. It was styled as a family service, but without our large group there would have been no children present. Even so, there was a short children's address. A church member spotted our seven year old and offered to take him out to Sunday school.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – Mrs Headon had a pleasant "northern" voice and a gentle conversational style which made her easy to listen to. She delivered a very thought-provoking sermon.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The sermon was entitled "Looking backward and forward at the same time" and was based on Isaiah 43:14-21 (the Lord forges a new path for his people; be not mindful of the past). It was very appropriate for the time of year. The old is by the new revealed. Are we fearful about the future? Or do we despair of things in the past? Should we forget the former things? No, but neither should we dwell on them. We live by faith, and faith means we do not know the future. We can't accept the gift from God of the present and future if we hold on to the past. The Lord can heal the past. Do not live as though you are facing backward on a train, always looking at where you've come from. This isn't healthy for us. God wants to wash away what was unclean. Isn't it foolish to go and retrieve what was washed away? Water washes away but also nurtures seeds.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Probably the sense of fellowship before, during and after the service.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The organist. Mrs Headon tried to set an upbeat tone but the organist wasn't having it. Every hymn or song was played incredibly slowly. And the worst bit for me was the way he ruined a worship song I value: "In Christ alone." I was almost in tears due to frustration. (Is it too much to ask the Lord that the gentleman should take a long walk off the short Hunstanton pier?)
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
We were directed to tea and coffee at the back of the church, where several members of the church, including a lovely couple who had moved to Hunstanton in semi-retirement a couple of years ago, engaged us in conversation. We were also given several boxes of mince pies to take with us.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Very good – especially the abundance of mince pies!
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 – We were made very welcome but somehow there seemed to be a spark missing. And I'd be worried about murdering the organist.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Sort of. The service was reflective and struck the right note. But the joy of the Christmas season was absent. Although a nonconformist myself, I don't like the tendency within some nonconformist traditions to avoid the Christian seasons after the day itself has been celebrated.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
Sadly, for the wrong reasons, the organist!