Word Alive at the Parish Church, Redland, Bristol, England


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Word Alive at the Parish Church
Location: Redland, Bristol, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 15 September 2019, 6:30pm

The building

Eighteenth century church built as his private chapel by John Cossins, a London gentleman who married the daughter of a Bristol merchant – but Cossins included his neighbours from the beginning. The chapel holds 150, which is a lot more than his household. It is beautiful, and nationally important, even though its architect is not known for certain. The interior, by the Bristol firm of Paty (Thomas Paty and his sons William and John, called ‘the makers of 18th century Bristol’), has world-class wood carving.

The church

This is an active parish – strikingly active, since they are between vicars. They meet opposite the chapel in the church halls, which suit their style of worship. The chapel does not, so they super-impose it with a small band, a very prominent electrical system, and a screen covering the painting above the altar.

The neighborhood

Redland is a late Victorian suburb that grew up when the Redland estate was sold off in 1865. Now only Cossins' house (in transition from school to residential) and the chapel remain from the 1740s. The parish caters a lot for children and students.

The cast

Worship was led by several teachers (if they didn't do it for a living, it was certainly a vocation).

What was the name of the service?

Word Alive.

How full was the building?

Probably about fifty people plus four musicians. Spread out, that made it seem fullish.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

‘Hello’ and some paperwork at the door. I then rudely went round photographing everything in sight and was helped by someone who knew the history and told me a lot. My next-door neighbour was also friendly and informed. At the end he retracted the screen so that I could see the picture over the altar.

Was your pew comfortable?


How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Quite busy. They had just had an open day, so the portraits of the founders were on display, leaning against the altar. They were covered with a cloth for the service, so I never got to see the altar itself, which I believe is so pagan that they always cover it during services.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

‘Good evening, everybody.’ (We did not reply.)

What books did the congregation use during the service?

None. It was all on the screen.

What musical instruments were played?

Keyboard and guitar.

Did anything distract you?

From what? The sumptuous beauty of the interior might possibly distract from the banality of the proceedings. I tried hard not to let the proceedings get in the way of the beauty.

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

Carefully orchestrated (with live band, short bursts of teaching, audience participation) to plug a message. Their website describes it as ‘a mixture [of] worship styles’ (leaving out the word ‘of’ – did anyone proofread before posting?). The theme of creation was stressed in word and song, petition and exhortation. I felt coerced rather than included, but they were so sincere I couldn't accuse them of propaganda.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

15 minutes.

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

7 — The preacher was clear and vigorous but a bit sinister. He told us his name, which sounded like a word that would fit well into the theme of his talk. Opening gambit: talk to your next-door neighbour about the meaning of your name. This worked too well – he had trouble getting us back. When he had our attention again, he accused us of abusing the planet. Then he advocated doing things I've been doing all my life.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

His principal text was Job 39 (does man control wild animals?). The whole service was based round this, linking it with last Sunday's theme: Psalm 104 (God is master of all). Are we good stewards of the earth? NO! As stewards, we should develop the earth on God's behalf. We are called to give it back in good order.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The glorious woodwork. The privilege of being in such an uplifting setting. The angels. The building is surely a gateway to heaven.

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

The service. The breath-taking irony of being told to respect creation in a setting where it was being ignored.

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

The historians were very kind – showing me things I hadn't seen, telling me things I didn't know, taking photos for me. We were invited to coffee in the hall opposite, but I spent all my time getting to know the chapel.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

I'm sorry that I missed it.

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

0 — I would love to see the building again – but not at the price of going to another service.

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

It didn't arise. I greatly enjoyed the reading from Job, the carving, the sculpture by John Michael Rysbrack, one of the 18th century’s three leading sculptors, the intimate encounter with eye-level angels.

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

The brilliance of Thomas Paty’s wood carvings.

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