|1005: King Charles the Martyr, Tunbridge Wells, Kent, England|
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|Mystery Worshipper: Roundhead.
The church: The Parish Church of King Charles the Martyr, Tunbridge Wells, England.
Denomination: Church of England.
The building: The exterior of the building is fairly plain brick and fits in almost too well with the surrounding area, although there are large clear signs (and a moralising sundial) to identify it as a church. Inside, the ceiling is quite spectacular white plaster work, otherwise the furnishings are quite restrained. There is a very small chancel under an arch, so almost all the pews have a good view, unless you are stuck behind a pillar. Seventeenth-century church builders, unlike their 19th-century successors, didn't belief that God is a Goth, so the overall effect is classical. (Of course, there aren't very many 17th-century churches, as most believers in the period spent their spare cash on Bibles, Prayer Books and raising regiments.)
The church: The church was built in the 1670s by public subscription. This was the period when taking the waters at the Wells was becoming fashionable and the church was intended to minister to the beautiful people at the spa. (The contemporary non-conformist diarist, Roger Morrice, described Tunbridge Wells as "the most debauched town in the kingdom".) It was also a period of aggressive royalism in the Church of England, hence the dedication of the church to the memory of King Charles I. However, on the day I visited, 30th January, there was a noticable lack of men with big, floppy hats or cavalier haircuts, even though this was the anniversary of the king's execution.
The neighbourhood: Royal Tunbridge Wells is almost aggressively middle class. There are some fine historic buildings, although a lot of them seem to have been turned into shops or pubs. The church is almost within thigh-slapping distance of the supremely posh Pantiles shopping area, and opposite the spa.
The cast: As the incumbent, Rev. Robert Avery, was away, the leader, preacher and president was Rev. Christopher Gill.
|What was the name of the service?
King Charles Festival (parish communion).
How full was the building?
About half full.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
I was greeted by the lady handing out the books, who also asked if I wanted the words or music for the choral settings in the liturgy.
Was your pew comfortable?
Quite comfortable, with particularly effective kneelers that didn't slide around on the floor.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
There was a little hushed conversation, but essentially a sense of quiet dignity.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning, everybody, and welcome to our eucharist."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Hymns Ancient and Modern (New Standard) and Common Worship. There was also a newsletter with the collects and readings printed on it and with a guide to finding the right pages in the service book.
What musical instruments were played?
Did anything distract you?
There was a portrait of Charles I on the back wall, which had either faded badly over time or showed the king in a particularly wan light.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The worship was fairly traditional, with a small robed choir, and some parts of the liturgy were sung. The choir processed in and out and the minister's vestments matched the altar front.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The text, appropriately, was "How are the mighty fallen", but there was only a passing reference to Charles I. There was also an approving comment about the life and death of Thomas Becket, which I thought was exactly the kind of behaviour the supporters of Divine Right were against. The New Testament reading was 1 Corinthians chapter 1: "God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong," and the preacher suggested that this inverts the impact of the text, but the idea was not developed.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The congregational singing during the gloria and other sung parts of the liturgy was particularly strong. I sometimes feel that I shouldn't join in at these points in churches with choirs as no one else seems to, which turns the thing into a performance, but there was no sense of that here. Offering everyone a copy of the music on the way in is a good way of encouraging participation.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The sermon was a disappointment. I'm rather a Stuart buff, so I would have welcomed more on that aspect, although I understand that the church sponsors an historical lecture each year. More importantly, the sermon was all too typical of Anglican preaching today. There were one or two interesting thoughts, but these were not explored, presumably to keep things brief, and there was certainly no sense of how I ought to live in the light of what was said. I couldn't help thinking that something more passionate and direct was required if the church was to fulfil its original mission to the fashionable visitors in the Pantiles.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
The person next to me introduced herself and told me a bit about the church and where the coffee was.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was (instant) coffee in real ceramic cups in the church hall. From the sound of clinking silver, it seemed that a contribution was expected and as I had no change I didn't indulge. It is a small point, but charging casual visitors for refreshments is no sign of a mission-minded church.
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
6 It is not really fair to judge it when the incumbent was away, but much as I appreciated the beauty of the service, I prefer a church that offers more challenge.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, it was a good change from the more evangelical style I'm used to.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The bacon sandwich I bought in the Pantiles after I didn't have the coffee at the church.