|862: Thornbury United Reformed, Gloucestershire, England|
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Mystery Worshipper: Chris Churchcrawler.
The church: Thornbury United Reformed Church Gloucestershire, England (although due to a PA system error, I was also tuning in to a service elsewhere).
Denomination: United Reformed Church, formerly Congregational.
The building: A large chapel on the edge of a car park behind the main street. The congregation can trace its origins back to 1718, but the present building dates from 1826. Inside are some fascinating monuments and brasses. There is a mid 18th century brass plate with skeletons, which is unusual in a non-conformist church. The church is box-shaped and has a large pediment and a bright interior. The furnishings were taken out recently and replaced with modern chairs.
The church: Thornbury is unsual as most of the Congregational churches in the area have remained so and have not joined the United Reformed Church. In a town with relatively large congregations, this church is quite small. However, it hosts a Saturday bookstall.
The neighbourhood: Lots of small local shops and old houses – all very picturesque, except for the car par adjoining the church.
The cast: Rev. Alison Evans, an ecumenical officer for the Gloucester area.
What was the name of the service?
How full was the building?
There were 18 people, including me and the minister. Apparently, the congregation usually numbers about 30.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
I was welcomed by a suited gentleman at the door and given a hymn book.
Was your pew comfortable?
A new, comfortable modern chair. The chairs were put in after the pews had been taken out.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Chatty and friendly. Although no one came over to say hello at first, I had some friendly nods and smiles from various people.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Welcome to morning worship."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The denominational hymn book and a Thornbury Praise booklet
What musical instruments were played?
A good organ by George Jonson Organ Works in Bristol. They were a prolific organ company and built many organs in the area, including the organ in the Swedenborgian Chapel in Bristol in 1899.
Did anything distract you?
Lots! First off, the PA system was picking up another service elsewhere, maybe in Thornbury. Every now and again you would hear hymns being sung and then two ladies gossiping, presumably in the vestry. It must have been on the same frequency or something. Another thing which amused me was that the chap reading the lessons looked and sounded like the actor Anthony Hopkins.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Hymn sandwich style of worship. The lady minister was dressed in a cassock with a celtic cross and I assumed she was Anglican. However, she turned out to be a Baptist minister from Stroud. The old lady sat in front of me, complete with hat, was swaying and raising her arms to the traditional hymns.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 The minister had an interesting accent that I couldn't quite place.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The sermon was about how the church needs to adapt to the modern age and to radically reform. Alison said that the church had adopted a siege mentality, where people were primarily concerned with "keeping the doors open" for their own lifetime, but not beyond. I felt sad, because most of the people at this church were clearly in their 70s and 80s, and what the future holds for this church is unsure. I felt that what Alison said was wholly right, but what to do here? Thornbury has a whole mix of churches that are very well attended. This church has a long history and it seems to me right that it should continue and somehow prosper.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The quietness of the service (other than the PA feedback). This was a simple service in a cheerful building, yet with a sense of history and place. Also after the service I found that the church was very friendly.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The PA system picking up the service elsewhere and hearing whispered conversations on it! Also some sadness that a friendly community like this one should be at a low ebb.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
The old lady in front of me, who had been raising her hands, turned round and asked me if I had been born again. She also told me: "It's not the numbers, you know, that matter. I was raised in a Presbytyrian church." And then she left it at that. I was quite taken aback, but I guess what she said about the numbers is right. There is a church not so far away that has large congregations, but are so busy fiddling with their sound systems and instruments that they ignore visitors – or at least they did so when I visited. This congregation is small and almost everyone came over and said "hello" and "nice to see you".
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Unfortunately, there wasn't any.
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 In spite of the small size of the congregation, the people were friendly and the service had a quiet dignity. I felt very welcome here.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. Being made to feel welcome is very important in my book. Too many churches – especially evangelical ones – fall into the trap of hiding behind microphones, instruments or technology. These are important, but making people feel welcome is far more important. This church has proved good at making people feel welcome.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The lady swaying to traditional hymns.