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519: St Paul's, Withington, England
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St Paul's Withington
Mystery Worshipper: Angelus Domini.
The church: St Paul's, Withington, UK.
Denomination: Anglican.
The building: A Victorian brick building, surrounded by a cemetery. The atmosphere in the churchyard is actually quite welcoming and inviting; a peaceful haven among eateries frequented by the students at the various universities in Manchester. Inside, some re-ordering has taken place. There is a narthex at the west end where folk are greeted and where books and leaflets are handed out. The nave has a light-coloured wood-effect floor with furniture of a matching colour. Though the chancel has fairly dark wood, the two areas blend nicely as the style of the woodwork is identical.
The church: There is a good sense of community and continuity at St Paul's. People who have a history at the church and have since moved to other, somewhat distant parishes still make the journey back to worship there. The choir numbers between 15 and 20 from what I could see, and were not at all bad. They provided the music during communion and clearly put a lot of work into it.
The neighbourhood: The church seems to be on the boundary between residential Withington, to the south, and the shopping, socializing section of Withington, to the north.
The cast: Rev. Sandra Woodhead (the rector) and two readers.
What was the name of the service?
Parish communion.

How full was the building?
About half full. I'm hopeless at estimating numbers, but about 150. There was also a good spread of age groups, beginning with the tots, and with a few in every decade until the 80s.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
On approach to the church, a gentleman smiled pleasantly and said good morning, though he was busy helping a wheelchair-user up the ramp. Upon entry, there was a welcoming committee of about eight, flanking the entranceway, one of whom offered me the necessary books, which were self-explanatory.

Was your pew comfortable?
St Paul's has got the seating just right. They have chairs that are actually wide enough to sit on without spilling into the personal space of the person next to you, a rare experience indeed (unless you're under 10 stone.). These were of matching colour to the floor and other furniture in the nave. Also, because they have chairs, rather than pews, all manner of possibilities are open for movement in special liturgies.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quite chatty. There is an office a couple of days during the week but only one celebration of the eucharist on a weekday, so I think that Sundays may perhaps be the only time a significant proportion of the community get to see each other, hence all the catching up that goes on before the liturgy begins. Somehow, though, it wasn't too intrusive.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Welcome to the house of the Lord on the day of the Lord!"

What books did the congregation use during the service?
The structure of the liturgy (Common Worship 1 in contemporary language) was in a seasonal booklet for epiphany. Hymns were from Hymns Old and New, complete Anglican edition, although melody/music editions were not available to the assembly (good job I knew the hymn tunes).

What musical instruments were played?
The organ was played before the liturgy began and accompanied both the choral and assembly singing throughout.

Did anything distract you?
I was disturbed from my "before mass" devotions by a well-intentioned lady who informed me that it was quite all right if I wasn't confirmed, as I could hold my hands together behind my back and receive a blessing!

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
There was a relaxed formality about the style, with odd elements of Catholicism, but seemingly without any attachment to their symbolism. The priest was vested in alb and stole to begin with, disappeared at the peace, and re-emerged during the offertory rite wearing a chasuble, only then to spend two verses of the hymn marking the necessary pages in the altar book. There was the non-dismissal at the end, in that, after being told to go in the peace of Christ, we then had to wait until the choir had sung an anthem before we could actually leave.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
13 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – The homily was clearly well-prepared and was delivered naturally. The homilist, Tom, took an analogous route throughout, linking sport and Paul's interest in it to the Christian journey. It was very good and quite refreshing, as I am unaccustomed to this style. Though I'm unsure it would be suitable for all occasions, it was for this one. I did feel, however, that there was a lack of theology throughout; in fact he missed a perfect opportunity for some sacramental theology. Also I couldn't help but feel that a lot of the homily was something of a demonstration of his knowledge of classical civilizations.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The homily was about the Christian journey of faith, its reality in everyday life, and almost parallel similarities to the sporting practices of ancient Greek and Roman societies. The centrality of the death and resurrection of our Lord as the turning point at which the Christian way gains meaning in light of Paul's writings was at the heart of the address.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The last hymn, "Ye holy angels bright", with the wonderful descant by Alan Gray, is one of my favourites. The choir certainly did it justice. The music during communion, from the RSCM's "Te Deum Laudamus", was also well done.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The game of liturgical chairs during the eucharistic prayer was a bit offputting. When will churches realize that this is one prayer and that it doesn't begin after the sanctus? We should either stand for the whole thing or kneel from the beginning, instead of doing the actions to a verse from "The wheels on the bus" during the most solemn part of the liturgy.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
After the choir's anthem, people filed out past the presiding team, who were shaking people's hands. Some left while others went to the church hall next door for refreshments. There was too much movement to be noticed really.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
I must make my confession here. I walked in, saw the glorious spread of cakes and biscuits and decided that the temptation to break my diet was too great. I left, though I'm sure that the post-service fellowship at St Paul's is very constructive.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
4 – I couldn't. It isn't Catholic enough by about 90 per cent. Although I genuinely feel that there is a lot of potential, love and talent here, I think the community could seriously benefit from a praxis or other liturgical training day.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
The family atmosphere definitely made me feel that this is a community where the Spirit is at work. However, celebrating the eucharist with them, I felt a bit like a music-lover feels when s/he hears somebody singing off-key.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
Ye holy angels bright.
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