|333: St Thomas, Lancaster, England|
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Mystery Worshipper: Captain Zep.
The church: St Thomas, Penny Street, Lancaster, England.
Denomination: Church of England.
The building: The church building is located in central Lancaster and dates from the 19th century. Ten stone steps lead up from the road to the door and into an entrance area. Beyond that is a carpeted area, where people were mingling, with glass windows that allow a look into the sanctuary area. There is an altar at the front of the sanctuary, I think, but on the Sunday I was there it was well hidden behind the worship group and a board that seemed to be there deliberately to keep it out of view. There is a balcony around three sides of the sanctuary. The church looks bigger on the outside than it really is, and lacks the usual Anglican cross shape. Maybe they only had limited space when they built the place?
The church: The congregation seems to be pretty large and contains a wide age range. They seem to be keen to do stuff with other local churches, which can't be a bad thing.
The neighbourhood: The church building is next to Lancaster Police Station (an ugly 1960s building). One minute's walk in the other direction is KFC, and although we didn't partake in an after-service meal, I can imagine some of the younger members of the congregation doing so.
The cast: The service was led by the vicar, Rev. Peter Guinness; the preacher was Rev. Gordon Crowther, the curate.
What was the name of the service?
How full was the building?
The balcony was empty but the downstairs area was pretty full. I reckon there were around 200 people there.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
A woman on our way in seemed surprised that we wanted to say hello and shake her hand, despite the fact that she was evidently on welcoming duty. We didn't get beyond "hello", though. Further in, just before the doors to the sanctuary, was a man giving out notice sheets. He too said hello, but not much more.
Was your pew comfortable?
Apparently the church has recently got rid of the pews, at least downstiars, and has opted for comfy chairs instead. And they were pretty comfy, too, although the people supplying the chairs obviously thought they were supplying a Baptist Church, as the back of the chair in front had a place to put the little cups Baptists use during communion. I tried to think of an alternative Anglican use for them but failed.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Farily bubbly and friendly, although only for people who belonged to the church. Those around us didn't acknowledge our arrival as we sat down.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Welcome to this evening's service. It's encouraging to see you here." He then went on to welcome any visitors and to say that if no one spoke to you, you should speak to them anyway. Put me in my place...
What books did the congregation use during the service?
There were no hymn or service books as all the necessary words were projected onto the overhead projector screen at the front. The Bible provided in the chair in front of me was the Revised Standard Version, and although the preacher started with this he seemed to switch to another version half way through (the NIV, I think).
What musical instruments were played?
The worhship was led by a young chap called Peter, who played the keyboard (very well) and sang. The rest of the band consisted of drums, guitar, bass guitar and trumpet. There were two female singers as well.
Did anything distract you?
The overhead projector screen was partially hidden by a pillar and the overhanging balcony, and by a collection of bright red balloons and streamers attached to the top of the pillar. They reduced the visibility of the screen to about 40 per cent, and when we came to read the liturgy from the screen, I had to mumble every fifth word.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The worship was definitely along the way to "happy-clappy", but to me that would imply a serious lack of content. That was certainly not the case here. Between songs the vicar often prayed or read a passage from the Bible or led some liturgy, which gave the worship substance. The congregation got involved in the worship, with clapping and hand-raising, which made the whole thing seem like a communal activity, as it should be. Most of the songs used were written in the last 10 years, although we also sang two hymns: "Dear Lord and Father of mankind" and "Breathe on me, breath of God".
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 The preacher based his sermon around six F-words. Only one of them had four letters in it, and it was "fear" (of God). Often when preachers do that sort of thing you're left wondering how much of their sermon preparation time was spent trying to come up with four words beginning with the letter Q all to do with the topic on hand, but I have to say that apart from the last one ("feedback") it worked pretty well.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The sermon was on Proverbs 3:1-10, and focused on the characteristics of wisdom essential for Christian leaders. The six F's were that godly leadership follows God; is faithful; exercises faith; exercises the fear of God; puts first things first; values feedback. All good stuff. Most memorable point: "the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing".
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The worship was genuine and enthusiastic, and I felt like the congregation really wanted to be there to worship, which is sometimes missing in churches. There were no spectators, as there won't be in heaven.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Not having grown up in an Anglican church, I'm still not au fait with the sharing of the peace. It seemed to me that people just said "peace to you" if they didn't recognise you, and quickly wandered away to talk to a friend they hadn't seen for a while. Surely if you're a regular in a church (and I'm assuming most of the people were that night) and you don't know the person you're sharing the peace with, you could at least ask them if they're new?
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Some people I know but don't usually go to St Thomas's were present. We talked with each other afterwards, which removed the awkwardness of having no one talk to us. The other times I've been here, no one has spoken to us, and when we've shaken hands with the vicar on the way out, he hasn't asked us anything. This time he wasn't even at the door! St Thomas's is a big church and the services I've attended in the past have been so good that I feel inclined to let them off their lapses of friendliness.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
I think there was tea and coffee, but hardly anyone was having them and so we passed on it.
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 St Thomas's is a lively, active church, and appears to me to have taken all the good bits of the Church of England and capitalized on them. If I were living in Lancaster, I'd seriously consider joining this church.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes it did. I definitely met with God and heard him speak in this service. The church takes an active part in the community and doesn't appear to be an out-of-date institution. We need more churches like this! I'd take a non-Christian friend along to St Thomas's, so it must be pretty good. If only they would talk to newcomers, they'd be great.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
Probably that the sermon hinged around six F-words, although it's unlikely I'll be able to remember all of them.