|793: St Alban with St Augustine, London, England|
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Mystery Worshipper: Newman's Own.
Denomination: Church of England.
The building: It was an odd and, for me, sad combination. A Victorian brick exterior, with an interior which, judging from the few stained glass windows which remain, must once have been lovely, but now is grotesquely trendy. Recent renovations have turned the building into what seems a large public waiting area – it reminded me of a combination of local railway station and playroom in an infant school. Highlights included an abstract crucifix in shades of purple, pink, and rust, where the figure of Christ had no face; another faceless picture of a figure at prayer as a floating leaf descended; and, capturing the mood completely, an odd picture of the blessed mother and child that was made out of cans, its border showing the beer and Coca Cola labels. The tasteless stations of the cross and banners (with such slogans as
The church: I have little knowledge of the parish, but, judging from the explanation of a Filipino centre which handles immigration and employment issues, plus the various organisations listed in the parish newsletter, it appears to be a location that is very involved with
The neighbourhood: It is a pleasant residential area, blending council estates and private homes, with two pubs nearly bordering the property.
The cast: Rev. Jack Maple, priest in charge, was the leader. He sat with the congregation, facing us only to give periodic instructions or introduce a prayer.
What was the name of the service?
Pentecost praise and barbeque.
How full was the building?
Quite full. This was a joint celebration involving several local parishes.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Though it was my first visit to the church, friends from another local parish were there, so I had sufficient greetings. Those preparing the food in the rear of the church (we would eat in the church proper) smiled and offered a friendly hello.
Was your pew comfortable?
It was a plain oak, very modern waiting room-type chair, which was comfortable enough.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
There was a bit of noise and bustle, because parishioners in the rear of the church were preparing food for the meal to follow, and several people were rehearsing music.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
I could not scribble as much as usual, because I somehow ended up seated directly next to the clergy. However, it was along the lines of "Welcome to St Alban's with St Augustine's informal praise to celebrate the feast of Pentecost."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Hymns Old and New. There was a service leaflet for the occasion which was easy to use but annoying for its politically correct theology. For example, there was no "Lord" during the rite of remembering our faults and failings, but rather "holy God, maker of all." (Somehow, "faults and failings" reminded me more of dropping a Kleenex in the street than sin.) The dreadful opening song, "Enemy of apathy," was, as I eventually realised, about the Spirit, who naturally was a she.
What musical instruments were played?
Organ, piano, and recorder. The gentleman playing the piano and organ seemed quite competent, but those who sang had far more zeal than ability. The meditation song they presented had harmonies which were not quite on target. We all sang the Taize "Veni creator spiritus" as a prayer response, and its style made me think that either "Hare krishna" or "Blessed be" would have been equally appropriate texts. To the musicians' credit, there was an attempt to combine a few different types of song. For example, we sang "Breathe on me, breath of God," but also happy clappy numbers such as "Teach me to dance to the beat of your heart".
Did anything distract you?
The interior was one that I would consider grotesque, and the music and texts were so annoyingly PC. Thus my main distraction was trying to show that I was happy to be with the others (a number of whom I knew, including a few priests) whilst doing my best not to groan or laugh.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was very informal and bordering on happy clappy. I would say it would appeal to the types who care mainly about getting people to come to services, but, for a high church type like myself, it was rather penitential.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
There was no sermon. Instead, representatives from the centre for Filipinos presented information about their work (quite impressive), then sang a medley of songs which Filipino farmers used during work in the fields.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Both the clear and strong friendliness of the congregation and the obvious concern for those in need (the presentation of the Filipino project being an example) were wonderful.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
I loathed the trendy music and the politically correct texts. Mercifully, we did not have to exchange the peace, because I had visions of its being reminiscent of a 1960s love-in.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
It did not apply this time, because there were others there with whom I already was acquainted. This was a friendly crowd, and I would imagine that a stranger would have been approached warmly.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was a splendid meal, including wines, salads, fruits, rice, chicken, veggie burgers, and the best grilled sausage I've had anywhere.
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
1 – The style of worship is definitely not one I would enjoy, but those whose tastes tend towards the informal and evangelical probably would love this church.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes indeed. The friendliness of those in attendance, the clear community outreach evident in the newsletter, and the admirable progress of the Filipino Centre, could not help but warm this Franciscan heart.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
God forgive me, but, in equal measure, my inward snobbery during the service and the marvellous sausages afterward.