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69: Cotham Parish Church, Bristol, England
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Cotham, Bristol
Mystery Worshipper: Leo.
The church: Cotham Parish Church, Bristol.
Denomination: Church of England.
The building: A converted Congregational chapel designed by William Butterfield, built on the spot where five dissenters were hanged in 1555-57 in the reign of Queen Mary. The chapel was bought by the Diocese of Bristol for use as an Anglican church. The pulpit and pews were stripped out to provide a spacious sanctuary and a pleasant, carpeted nave.
The neighbourhood: Opposite is a former Congregationalist theological college, now converted into a doctors' group practice. Also a homeopathic hospital.
The cast: Rev Stuart Taylor, the Diocese of Bristol's officer for mission and evangelism.
What was the name of the service?
Parish Eucharist.

How full was the building?
About two-thirds full: 70 people, of whom about half were aged over 60.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes. A woman said 'Hello... oh!' as she handed me a hymn sheet and then discovered she had run out of weekly newsletters. In the peace, some people went out of their way to come over to me with a greeting: 'Hi, I'm Sue,' etc. Someone next to me noticed I didn't have a copy of the Mass setting during the Gloria and offered me her copy. The welcome was pleasant without being obtrusive.

Was your pew comfortable?
Yes, a wooden seat with plenty of leg room.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quiet gossip.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
'Good morning and welcome.'

What books did the congregation use during the service?
A green booklet with the service printed out in full, plus 'Hymns Ancient and Modern' and 'Hymns for Today'.

What musical instruments were played?
Organ (during the service) and piano (before the service).

Did anything distract you?
A lay assistant at communion spilled some of the consecrated wine, which hit the floor with a loud 'splat'. Someone immediately mopped it up – I wasn't sure whether this was out of reverence for the sacrament or a desire to avoid stains on the carpet. I felt really sorry for the assistant.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Pleasantly understated, matter of fact and cheerful. There were no rousing hymns to manipulate the emotions, but neither was the service boring or formal. There was a good balance between allowing people space to pray and drawing them into a sense of community.

Cotham, Bristol

Exactly how long was the sermon?
Nine-and-a-half minutes.

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

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
How hospitality changes both guest and host. The Old Testament reading about Abraham entertaining angels unawares formed the basis of the sermon, with amusing anecdotes about the preacher's trip to Sydney and the offer of a jacuzzi to unwind after a long flight.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The sense of purposeful community. The members of this congregation are heavily involved in Jubilee 2000, Traidcraft, CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament), and other agencies. There was also extensive and thoughtful lay involvement in the readings and intercessions, and moderate, unfussy ceremonial from neatly-robed servers.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
When the chalice was spilt – I have a strong belief in the real presence in the sacrament.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I was invited to go through to the hall for coffee, where people asked who I was and chatted to me.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Traidcraft coffee in a proper cup and saucer, hot and pleasant, with the option to buy chocolate, home-made jams and biscuits.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. Here is a community of people whose Christianity involves the 'real world', with its need for peace and justice, and which seems to be a warm, friendly community with an unobtrusive yet real spirituality.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The offertory hymn, 'Seek Ye First the Kingdom of God' – partly because I dislike it, but also because they sang it so well (with descants, even though there was no choir) that I can't rid my mind of the tune... I'm beginning to like it!

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