Formed in 2013, they met at first in a leisure centre and moved five years later to the assembly hall of Hardenhuish School, a large secondary school in Chippenham that has outgrown its original Palladian villa (complete with Palladian church that would not hold this congregation even if they wanted to use it) and has taken up most of its park with new buildings.
Their groups for men, women, youth and tots are well described on their website. In addition to Sunday church, they also have life groups and something called Free to Connect, which (quoting from their website) is intended ‘to guard the church schedule to make sure we all have time to be with family, with church friends and with other friends too. Church should not make relationships difficult.’ They are a new group, apparently popular locally but not part of the school. Only one member of the congregation teaches in the school. They all bring lots of children, who outnumber the adults about three to one.
Chippenham, about 20 miles east of Bristol, is a large historic market town. Hardenhuish (usually pronounced Harnish) is now a thriving suburb of Chippenham, merging into Cepen, a 21st Century area of housing and retail.
Several people wearing yellow lanyards led the service: introducing, directing the music, singing, preaching.
What was the name of the service?The Service.
How full was the building?
Pretty full when the children were there. Maybe 40-50 adults in a hall that might seat 150.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes. Several people – two on the door, more serving tea, and three or four who came up and talked when I was seated. While saying we really ought not to, we all shook hands.
Was your pew comfortable?
Yes. School chair.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Lively and friendly. Most of the adults seemed to have three or four kids and they were coping really well.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
‘Good afternoon and welcome to Trinity Chippenham.’
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Song words were all on a screen. A friendly singer shared his Bible with me during the sermon.
What musical instruments were played?
Keyboard, two guitars, percussion. There were several singers led by the one who played the keyboard.
Did anything distract you?
No. The school environment meant that someone had got there first and blocked off every distraction. I hunted round the empty labs and playing fields for some time before I found a small banner advertising the church, which is put out just before the service and taken down after. This led me to thinking that the Church has almost become a secret society again.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Heartfelt. Clearly people were moved by the Spirit (but in a very restrained and English way). There were songs interspersed with prayer, with keyboard backing. The children went to their own activities, which we were encouraged to visit. There was a long sermon. People wandered in and out and ate and drank throughout. Communion was ministered to us in our seats: a cube of bread and juice in a small plastic glass.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 — The preacher was totally sincere, in the Billy Graham style. He could not fail to connect his audience with something greater than himself. He also had a commendable grasp of the epistle to the Hebrews. If he had boiled it down to half the length, I'd have given him 10.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
This was the fourth of five studies of Hebrews, but I didn't feel disadvantaged, even though he had left off at Hebrews 10:26 (no sacrifice for sin left for repeat sinners) last week. He said there is something in us that makes us want to pull back to safety. The author of Hebrews looks back to the Israelites' time in the wilderness (we are so easily swayed by sin) and offers us the great High Priest (we can relate to God through Christ). He urged us not to give up, but rather to keep moving forward by faith. All we need to do is trust. (He concluded by saying that next week he'll tell us how to do it.)
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Not my idea of heaven, but clearly it worked for others.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
I found the songs quite painful, especially the words.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Everyone was friendly but not pushy.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Tea, coffee, cakes and biscuits throughout.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
4 — I have so many other churches to visit. I wouldn't choose to join this group, but I can see that they are spreading Christ's message as they see it.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
I wonder if the early church was a bit like this, before they got going on liturgies and buildings.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The feeling (which is quite fun) that the Church is almost a secret society again.