|752: The University Church of St Mary the Virgin, Oxford, England|
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Mystery Worshipper: ACOL-ite.
The church: The University Church of St Mary the Virgin, Oxford, England.
Denomination: Church of England.
The building: The building is very grand and manages to make quite an impression even on Oxford's skyline. Its marvellous stone exterior is well matched by an interior which, though it could hardly be called plain, is not so overly decorous as to be distracting.
The church: The church plays a variety of functions throughout the year, hosting different communities at different services. Tonight's service was for the "inclusive church", so brought together Christians from a variety of different churches in Oxford and beyond.
The neighbourhood: Fenced in between a library, a college and a row of shops, the church is in the heart of the city centre. Semi-pedestrianisation of the centre has meant it doesn't suffer from traffic noise the way some nearby churches do.
The cast: The president remained anonymous throughout the service (though I suppose he was known to the assorted cognoscenti). The preacher was the Revd Dr Giles Fraser.
What was the name of the service?
Inclusive Church Oxford Eucharist.
How full was the building?
Full to the rafters and there are quite a few rafters! We had some lively debate about numbers after the service, I reckon about 500, but some people I spoke to estimated nearer 800.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes, they gave me an order of service and a leaflet giving the "manifesto" (though I'd probably be admonished for using such a word·) of the inclusive church. No handshake, but a smile and a muttered "good evening," I believe.
Was your pew comfortable?
Perfectly adequate. There weren't enough kneelers for everyone in our row, but not everybody wanted to kneel, so it wasn't a problem.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quite quiet. A little bit of chat between people who had recognised someone they knew, but all whispered, so no one's prayers were interrupted.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
A bespoke service book, which contained all the hymns, readings and "bits to say". It left out some of the uucharistic prayer, though.
What musical instruments were played?
Organ. The university choir led the singing splendidly. I saw someone leave with a cello case after the service, but I didn't hear a cello at any point, so I'm not sure whether it was played.
Did anything distract you?
Before the service, I, like a lot of the congregation, couldn't contain my curiosity about who was arriving, and spent a lot of the pre-service time with my head ping-ponging between the two doors to spot people I knew. The only distracting thing during the service was some slight trouble with the microphones.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Quite formal and traditional, with a well enough drilled team of servers to pull it off.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
I'm afraid I didn't do a proper timing. I set my stop-watch going at the start, but was a little less than dry under the eyes by the end and plain forgot about it. I thought it was a little short, which is probably about 10 minutes by my standards.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 He started the sermon by passing on greetings from "the Bishop-elect of New Hampshire", at which point such a buzz of noise emerged from the congregation that I thought I'd missed the church and strayed into a party conference. A very good sermon was needed to bring me back that from that distraction and the excellent sermon that was preached was more than sufficient.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
We need to read the Bible in terms of the big picture: that big picture is that we are called to love God and love our neighbour: on this hangs all scripture, and any interpretation must be consistent with this. Additionally, throughout the Bible, we see a widening of those who may be called God's people. Our mission as a church is to continue that widening as much as we can.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Looking over and seeing one man crossing himself while his pew-neighbour held his hand in the air a potent visual sign of inclusivity.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
As powerful as the sermon was, there were two moments when I felt it was a little exclusive. One I've mentioned. The other was a criticism of a certain American conservative which felt a little too heartfelt to be entirely consistent with the message of love Giles Fraser was trying to preach.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
One would have to have been a better rugby player than me not to have been jolted towards the makeshift bar by the surging crowd. A few people from my church were there, and I met up with them over a glass of wine and I pretty much managed to say hello to all the people I half knew in the congregation, as well as managing to meet at least two new people.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
A selection of red, white or several different juices plus Pringles. No one had baked any cakes for the occasion, unfortunately.
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 This service gives very little clue as to how normal Sundays might operate, but the tasteful architecture and talented choir would certainly be a good start.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes! Absolutely. I left full of hope for our church.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
Visiting clergy had been invited to robe and an abiding memory will be the variety of vestments they were wearing as they processed in.