|633: Holy Innocents, Fallowfield, Manchester, England|
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Mystery Worshipper: The Irregular.
The church: Holy Innocents, Fallowfield, Manchester, England.
Denomination: Church of England.
The building: The building is a typical late 19th century church from the outside, however the interior space has been significantly remodelled in recent decades. In particular the layout has been rotated 180 degrees providing a wide, open worship space and altar. The original front section (now at the rear) has been divided up by the addition of a balcony set above kitchen and office facilities. The church is currently undergoing additional structural work to develop this split level arrangement further, creating some charming, intimate, meeting spaces on both levels.
The church: The church has a very distinct appeal to those who appreciate its style of liturgy and its liberal theology. Accordingly, despite its geographical location it is most definitely not what one would call a student church, although a good few lecturers are to be found among the regulars. The vast majority of the congregation travel in from outside the parish and the absence of any community related activities was noticeable.
The neighbourhood: Holy Innocents lies in the heart of South Manchester's student ghetto. In addition to the numerous university halls of residence, many local streets are now dominated by student houses. This adds up to tens of thousands of students living in the locality, which is reflected by the innumerable fast food outlets, late night convenience stores and cheap bars that thrive in the area. In fact the large building adjacent to Holy Innocents, which was originally the church school and then the church hall, has for a long time now been better known as the Queen of Hearts, and is more accustomed to serving cheap pints of snakebite than bread and wine.
The cast: The rector had just commenced a three month sabbatical and so the assistant curate Edmund Newey preached and celebrated. He was ably assisted by a senior server and two acolytes. The latter came complete with whiter than white robes and highly stylised "praying hands" poses that bordered on a tableaux one might expect to find immortalised in cheap plaster in an item destined for Gadgets for God.
What was the name of the service?
10.00am sung eucharist with sermon.
How full was the building?
The seating was just under half full. There were about 60 people in total; almost all of who were middle-aged or older and there was a total absence of any children.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
The polite good morning as I arrived was supplemented by hand shaking in the peace. The real welcome came immediately once the service had finished. This is clearly a congregation that takes its worship time seriously and socialising, of which there was certainly plenty, waits until the end.
Was your pew comfortable?
No pews, rather individual seats that were very comfortable. They were nicely arranged in curved rows that lent a feeling of intimacy to the proceedings whilst being well spaced so as to allow room for personal reflection.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
There was absolute silence, as requested on the service sheet. This provided a very reverential atmosphere, which people were clearly using to prepare themselves for worship.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
A ringing bell provided the prompt for us to commence the entrance hymn after which the president opened with the standard "In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit".
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The liturgy and order of service were neatly set out on the service sheet, which was accompanied by The New English Hymnal.
What musical instruments were played?
The organ was played (very nicely to my ears) and the sung liturgy was handsomely led by a strong, but disembodied voice seeming to emanate from the balcony (my money was on the organist).
Did anything distract you?
Wondering what washing powder they used to get the acolytes' robes so gleamingly white.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
I had been a bit concerned that sung eucharist might be overly formal and, well, maybe a little up itself. However I was delighted to find that while it was undertaken with seriousness it also seemed pretty relaxed in atmosphere and over all was really quite, quite beautiful. I can see why the regulars value the format.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 The preacher was extremely articulate and it was a real pleasure to come across someone able to explore a well defined theme without shying away from deeper concepts or treating his audience like babes too young for solid foods. My impression was that the congregation were more than comfortable with rigorous, intellectual arguments and references and the style and content of the sermon met them on this level.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The sermon focused on the story of Jonah and explored the prophet's "cognitive dissonance" in trying to elude the presence of God, the human division of divine characteristics of love and justice and the irony woven throughout the tale. Holy Innocents could never be accused of dumbing down, but the sermon was delivered without pretension and opened up interesting angles on the familiar tale.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
While the church may lack links with its immediate community, it would be unfair to suggest it ignores the world outside and indeed it was clear that this is a church where the theology informs the lifestyles and concerns of the congregation. Posters promoting campaigns against the arms trade and pro fairer trade etc. were prominently displayed. Issues of peace and justice were also reflected strongly in the intercession and it was heavenly to have issues so dear to my heart form the central core of the prayers.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Having to explain to the umpteenth person that no I wasn't "new to the area". It seemed a very strange question coming from people who general lived miles away. Having to keep a straight face as someone quipped, "Ah, you can go away and give us marks out of 10," was also quite tough.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I didn't have a chance to look lost as I was immediately approached by the lady who had been sat in front of me. She was absolutely charming and took time out to show me around the building and introduce me to dozens of people over coffee. To a person, they were all very open and welcoming, which more than made up for their lack of original opening questions. The curate had also specifically invited the "new faces" to stay for coffee and made a deliberate point of catching me to say hi as I made to leave.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
All fair trade accompanied by biccies and served with a smile what more could you ask for? They even offered to top up my black tea with hot water bliss!
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 The sung liturgy was beautiful, the congregation friendly and the theological standpoint and ethical concerns would sit well with me. I would also be very tempted by the opportunity to hear sermons pitched on an educated level. My only reservation would be that for all its theory and position on the global scale there was little evidence of getting ones hands dirty in the local arena. However they do celebrate the eucharist daily, including several evenings, which I could well be tempted to drop in on from time to time.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Gladder than I've been for a long while, not least due to the beauty of the worship and the confirmation that one doesn't necessarily need to leave one's intellectual faculties in the church porch with the brollies.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The relaxed solemnity of the sung eucharist.