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26: Nine O'Clock Community, Hill Top Chapel, Sheffield
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Hill Top Chapel
Mystery Worshipper: Dr. Iain Parsley.
The church: The Nine O'Clock Community, meeting at Hill Top Chapel, Attercliffe, Sheffield.
Denomination: Church of England.
The building: A simple, one-roomed chapel. Built in 1629.
The neighbourhood: Attercliffe was once the centre of Sheffield's steel-making industry (the wreckage of that industry forms the backdrop for the film 'The Full Monty'). After the major decline of the early 1980's and a decade of decay, the area has seen some modest improvement in recent years with investment in light industry, call centres and entertainment. The chapel is directly opposite the Don Valley Stadium and an enormous police station. So far, the investment has not extended to housing, as the nearest homes are probably two or three miles away.
The cast: No minister was present. The service was led by lay members of the congregation Jim and Jane (I never learnt their surnames).
What was the name of the service?
Samhain – an important festival in the Druidic calendar, containing many of the pagan elements that have passed into Halloween. This was a service to celebrate the Celtic festival of restoration and renewal.

How full was the building?
About one-third full, with 20 adults and 10 children.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
A quick hello from two men having a pre-service smoke in the extremely dark graveyard. Once inside, a woman called Michelle introduced herself and suggested that I sit closer to the front. A chap called Ade came across, asked where I was from and gave me some background to the congregation. Most of those present had been members of the Nine O'Clock Service (NOS). After the demise of that group, post-Chris Brain, a small number continue to meet and, in Ade's words, 'practice experimental forms of religion'.

Was your pew comfortable?
The chapel has clearly seen recent investment, with repainting and new doors. The chairs were beech/ash framed and cushioned – extremely comfortable.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Noisy with lots of frenetic activity. Paul Simon's 'Graceland' was playing from a portable box, children were running everywhere and women were busy lighting candles, folding service sheets and filling tin cans with dry peas.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
'We're going to start now, so a bit of quiet please.'

What books did the congregation use during the service?
The service sheet.

What musical instruments were played?
Percussion was provided by the children, who had each been given an old baby milk can or margarine carton filled with dried peas. The only music during the service was singing along to a Sinead O'Connor track, titled, 'Thank you for Hearing Me'.

Did anything distract you?
The percussion, which continued throughout the service.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
New Age, Celtic. Lots of references to ecology and the early Church.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
7 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
1. Jim's talk was on the meaning of Samhain. It was delivered in the style of an undergraduate reading an essay to his first tutorial. We even had an interlude when candles were brought closer, so that Jim could see the talk he was reading to us.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
People in the West are so preoccupied with life and health that they have forgotten their ancestors. Like the Celts, we should remember our past relatives, celebrate their wisdom, and communicate with them so that they can guide us in the future and help us avoid repeating past mistakes.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Sitting alone after the service inside this chapel and thinking of the faith that has enabled this place to withstand the economic and social upheaval all around it.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Going outside afterwards to find the rest of the congregation standing around a bonfire, with Halloween lanterns, watching a fireworks display.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Michelle came across to offer a drink, food and an explanation of what the community was all about. It seems they want to avoid the didacticism of the Chris Brain era.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
This is the first time I have ever been offered a pre-service drink (mulled wine), which was very welcome as the chapel was freezing. After the service, more wine, chocolate cake and marshmallows were on offer.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
1. I would not wish to belong to a church where the gospel was not central to the worship.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
I am not entirely sure if many people would recognise that this was a Christian service.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
That I attended a service in an Anglican Church where the name of Jesus Christ was never mentioned.
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