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903: St Mary and All Saints, Kidderminster, Worcestershire, England
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St Mary and All Saints, Kidderminster, Worcestershire, England
Mystery Worshipper: Wayward Crucifer.
The church: St Mary and All Saints, Kidderminster, Worcestershire, England.
Denomination: Church of England.
The building: One of only two medieval buldings left in Kidderminster, St Mary's dates from the 15th and 16th centuries. Originally only the chantry chapel was dedicated to St Mary, but the designation gradually was applied to the main church itself. The building contains much stained glass – the west window, depicting a large number of saints, especially caught my attention. Votive candles were set out on a stand by a pillar, but with no statue or image nearby. The chancel was reordered in the early 1990s, bringing the altar forward and placing the celebrant's chair behind it, with sediliae on either side. A new ring of bells has recently been made and installed, replacing the old ones – which, according to my bell-ringing uncle, were notoriously bad.
The church: This is the original parish church, and thus plays its role in the civic life of the town. It draws its congregation from all over town, and is now grouped with four other churches as part of a team ministry.
The neighbourhood: Church Street used to run all the way up to the plaza in front of the church, where the war memorials and a large and impressive wrought iron gate are situated, but the local planners decided that a ring road would be far more fitting instead. Access to the church from Church Street is now via a 1960s underpass. The other approach to the church leads past the site of many former carpet factories, and the canal passes almost immediately to the west; more carpet factories were at one time located on the other side of the canal. The town's Methodist church is just across the carpark from St Mary's.
The cast: Rev. Canon Owain Bell, vicar, celebrated. Two retired clergy assisted, one of whom preached. A reader led the liturgy of the word.
What was the name of the service?
10.30 Parish Eucharist Team Service for the Festival of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

How full was the building?
The main body of the nave was probably 80 per cent full, though the side aisles were unoccupied.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
Someone said hello whilst handing me a pile of books.

Was your pew comfortable?
Standard pew – not luxurious, but neither too hard nor too cramped. It was possible to kneel in the space provided without hitting my feet on any lower structure, a problem I have encountered recently in several other churches.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quite chatty, despite the worship notes having a heading beginning "Before the service talk to God...." I tried, but the chatter was enough to distract my prayer. It did quiet down as more people arrived and the organist began a prelude.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning, and welcome to our team service." The more formal "In the name of the Father..." came after a rather long introduction, with notices, banns, and a brief history of the title of the church.

What books did the congregation use during the service?
Common Praise hymn book; locally produced booklet called Common Worship with Eucharistic Prayer G; a handout entitled Worship Notes, containing collect and post-communion prayer, a brief preparation prayer, and notes on all the readings.

What musical instruments were played?
Organ only, well played, giving good support to the hymn singing and congregational mass setting.

Did anything distract you?
There was one man a couple of rows beside me who said "Thank you" during the confession and muttered loudly on our way forward to take communion. I'm sure I also heard him say "I think he's a visitor" after the creed. The altar crucifix merged into the tracery and decoration of the chancel, and whilst I knew it was there, I couldn't actually see it. And then, at times I could. The crucifix is actually quite stark and plain, and would work well in a less ornate setting. I also appeared to be the only one kneeling at many of the points where I would have expected to kneel. Has kneeling really gone that much out of fashion?

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Slightly Catholic side of middle of the road. The clergy and servers were vested in albs, and the celebrant wore a white chasuble. There was a small gospel procession, but without incense or bells. We stood for the consecration and knelt (sat, I mean) for the confession, intercessions, and prayers before and after communion. The preparation prayer went "Hail Mary, full of grace and faith, help us to hear God's call and to respond faithfully."

Exactly how long was the sermon?
11 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – Friendly, relatively chatty style.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The place of the Virgin Mary within the church. Describing the Church of England as taking a "middle way" of neither ignoring nor actively venerating the Virgin Mary, the preacher spoke about Mary as an example of faith. He also described how once he found himself praying to Mary, and how he felt it to be a very natural thing to do. He drew an analogy to the passage in Hebrews where Paul talks about Jesus making intercession for us before the throne of the Father – he suggested it is likely that Jesus's mother does the same.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Singing all of the hymns. I don't get to do this often enough, so it was a real treat. And hearing a congregation sing, sadly too rare in my own church. Common Worship Eucharistic Prayer G, and the alternative to the traditional prayer of humble access (neither of which I think have used before), worked very well.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
I appeared to be the only person in either my pew or the one behind it to receive communion. We were marshalled up row by row, and when it came to my row, only I moved.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
After about five minutes of standing around, I had made up my mind to leave. Just then, I was approached by a man who asked if I was a visitor and where I came from. He and I were both graduates of the same college at London University, 40 years apart, and we talked about our times there. As I left, I was greeted warmly by the vicar, who asked where I was from and whether I had come by boat.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was plenty of coffee available, along with digestive biscuits. However, I don't like coffee, and had to ask for tea. This was met with an explanation of the options – either I could have tea out of a pack with its own milk, or I could have it black, made with a tea-bag, as there was no fresh milk. The former was served in a disposable plastic cup and was drinkable, but nothing to get excited about.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 – This is the town where I grew up but no longer live. I attended a different church at that time. Should I return permanently, St Mary's would be a strong contender for becoming my regular church, as it matches my worshipping preferences.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
I'm still wondering whether the Church of England, in the grand scheme of things, is a "middle way."
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