|486: Zion Chapel, Leicester, England|
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Mystery Worshipper: Monty Moose (accompanied by sidekick Pinecone Man).
The church: Zion Chapel, Aylestone, Leicester, England.
Denomination: Particular Baptist.
The building: A tidy, functional building, rectangular and brown-bricked with a sloping, tiled roof. The sanctuary is plain, with pale pink walls and orange pews, which could seat 50 comfortably, 100 at a push. The floor consists of bare boards, apart from a red carpet down the aisle. At the front of the church a small organ sits next to a central wooden pulpit. Windows made of reinforced glass fill the room with light and give it a calm, spacious feel. I was surprised to find out that the building used to be a telephone exchange it seems so well suited to its new role that I thought it had been purpose-built.
The church: The congregation used to be based in the city centre, in a building that could accommodate a congregation of 600+. As numbers dwindled and the building became surplus to their needs, the church acquired this building and regard it as God's provision.
The neighbourhood: The church sits on a main road about two miles south of Leicester city centre. The area is economically mixed industrial revolution terraces sit side by side with grand Victorian houses although these tend towards the more urban end of genteel. Across the road are several large car showrooms and garages, behind which are hidden the canal and the huge green space of Aylestone Meadows.
The cast: The preacher was David Field, paying his annual visit to the church as some kind of overseer. I didn't ask the name of the man who announced the hymns.
What was the name of the service?
How full was the building?
In the pews was a family of four, two old ladies, Monty and Pinecone (that is, eight people, including us). At the front was an organist, the preacher and a church member who announced the hymns.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
A bearded man was hanging around outside with his two young sons when we arrived. All three were impeccably dressed in black suits, white shirts and blue ties. He seemed pleased, if slightly bemused, to encounter visitors, and ushered us inside.
Was your pew comfortable?
Adequately comfortable, wooden pew covered with a foam cushion. Shelf protruding from pew in front was perfectly positioned for knee-banging when crossing/uncrossing legs.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quiet, very quiet. The boys sat silently with their parents in the row in front of us, the older ladies across the aisle sat separately, one at the front, one at the back, the organist located his books, preacher and hymn-announcer took their places and the service began.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Let us commence the solemn worship of God with hymn 1127, tune 294" and then the man announcing read out the first verse.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Gadsby's Hymns and the Holy Bible (King James Version), both emblazoned with the name of the church and instructions to return the books to the back of the church after the service.
What musical instruments were played?
The wooden organ at the front, played excruciatingly slowly.
Did anything distract you?
Surprisingly few distractions the simplicity of the bare walls, small room and tiny congregation was almost hypnotic. Towards the end of the sermon I caught a whiff of my A-level maths classroom, momentarily transporting me back to my school's 6th form. The opening prayer lasted a good 10-15 minutes and by the middle of it I could hear snoring from across the aisle. In fact, large sections of the prayer which contained a good deal of preaching and a proclamation of the gospel seemed to be directed mainly towards the Mystery Worshippers. This hypothesis was confirmed by our mention nearer the end of said prayer fortunately a prayer of blessing and general goodwill, with hope for our salvation. I felt sorry for the poor boys in front, utterly bored and leaning their heads resignedly against their parents' shoulders.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The organist wallowed, we rose during the last line of the introduction and croaked our way through 4-5 verses of bold Baptist rhyme. This is the first time I've ever felt justified in using the word "croaked" with regard to singing, but it was truly was, in the words of Pinecone Man, dire. Before each hymn, the man announced the number of the tune as well as the words. Needless, as only the woman on the front row seemed to have any concept of the word "tune". The hymns were obviously chosen along the lines of the church's situation and outlook the second describing faithfulness in the face of many falling away, the third lamenting the flawed, vain world.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
5 Started well and passionately, but then began to wander and use condescending anecdotes about people he'd met. Used a lot of Christian jargon and could have done without the last 20 minutes or so.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Vaguely about the importance of prayer and meditation on God's word. The preacher took as his starting point the first verse of Psalm 45, interpreting "my tongue is the pen of a ready writer" as meaning that David was boiling over with passion to proclaim his vision of the Messiah. He went on to speak about how our conversation reflects what's on our hearts, and how infrequently we praise God in conversation. Lost the thread after that.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
During the opening prayer, hazy sunshine shone in at the windows, the room was quiet and warm, the call of gulls could be heard outside and I felt at peace with the world. Also looking at the family in front, thinking how faithful they must be to worship in such a small, dying church. Beautiful, but sad.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Being told repeatedly how awful and worthless we all are without God and how nasty the world is. Rather spoiled for me the splendour of God's creation. Didn't give me much joy of salvation either.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Talked to the woman of the family in front quiet and self-effacing, but friendly. It looked like everyone was trying to leave and we were holding them up, so we quickly made our way to the back and shook hands with the preacher. He told us the history of the church and we asked why it was "particular" Baptist apparently they're particular about there being an elect, God having chosen a specific set of people to save, because "that's what it says in the Bible, and in this church we teach the Bible". I wanted to ask him why God had created the rest of the human race if he was just going to condemn them to hell, but held my tongue.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
4 (Pinecone Man says 1). I enjoyed the peace and space, but it felt like a group of individuals had come to listen to a man tell them to behave and then go home again. Not much sense of community.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Surprisingly, yes. I felt glad to be able to walk into a strange place, be welcomed, and worship.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
Wondering how long it will be before the two bored children in the row in front desert the church.