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1121: St Paul's Clifton, Bristol, England
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St Paul's, Clifton, Bristol, England
Mystery Worshipper: Subwayfarer.
The church: St Paul's Clifton, Bristol, England.
Denomination: Church of England.
The building: A classic Anglican church in a fairly smart part of town. Architecturally ornate on the outside; rich on the inside in the Catholic-Orthodox manner.
The church: There were ample signs of life of the non-evangelical variety: a table full of trade justice materials, all kinds of political and academic pamphlets, etc. The church has strong links with Bristol University and a history of radical political engagement. It remains a leading liberal Anglican church in Bristol.
The neighbourhood: Clifton is the smart part of Bristol, although the church is not in the most high end part of Clifton. Rather, it is in the university quarter, which has a far more relaxed feel to it than Clifton Village up the hill.
The cast: The Rev. Simon Taylor, assistant curate, presided. The preacher was Ms Charity Hamilton, a member of the congregation.
What was the name of the service?
Family Worship.

How full was the building?
Not crammed to the rafters, but a healthy spread of people occupying all the pews in reasonable density from the front to the back.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
Someone welcomed me with a handshake and a service sheet. I had the impression that I could have chatted on with this person at length had I so wished. When I sat down I was warmly greeted by my neighbour, a barrister. She introduced me to the couple on the other side of her, and I felt very much at-ease.

Was your pew comfortable?
The pew was comfortable. There were cushions for kneeling during the prayers.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
I arrived just as the service was beginning, but my guess would be that the pre-service atmosphere would generally be what you wanted it to be, within certain parameters. Space enough to be quiet in – or if you so desired, the opportunity to gossip and flit about the pews. The overriding sense I had was that one could be as one chose here.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
I'm afraid I missed it, but I'm pretty sure it was a conventional Anglican welcome. Warm, but not overly emotional or dramatic.

What books did the congregation use during the service?
A handout contained an outline of the liturgy – very usable, unlike some others I've seen. There was also a hymn book and Bible available, although I didn't consult the Bible during the service.

What musical instruments were played?
Organ. The music was very traditional, with a mixture of older and more modern hymns.

Did anything distract you?
One of the more modern hymns contained some weird double entendres that sent the barrister next to me into paroxyms of laughter. "Golden bulwarks" were mentioned, and something about the "bridal shed" (I think "shed" was a verb in this context, but the immediate impression was otherwise). Also, not being up on the rules of crossing oneself, I was somewhat distracted when I saw people doing it at what seemed to be odd times.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Stiff-upper-lip, really, although lots of life in it. As already mentioned, there was enough informality for my neighbour to kill herself laughing over the language of the hymn. The organ was well used, and there was a wonderful university choir who sang at interludes. (I was told later that these were "nothing to do with the religion.")

Exactly how long was the sermon?
10 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
10 – The preacher, Charity Hamilton, was really the highlight of the service. Her theme was "waiting" and she managed to infuse her message with both humour and intellect. She spoke of her days spent flipping burgers at McDonalds as well as about her car-dealer father and her smoking habit. And on top of all that she found time to mention the noted feminist Germaine Greer and global justice.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Waiting is not merely dead time. It fills a specific function – for example, it gives her the chance to step aside and have a fag.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Wonderful choir, friendly people, great sermon.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Nothing stands out, but there are some aspects of Anglicanism that I always find awkward, such as the peace ceremony. Being lifted up to prayerful reflection by a decorous and restrained liturgy, only to have the spell suddenly broken by an awkward handshake or, worse yet, a squishy hug from a slightly mad stranger, always spoils it for me.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
A well-meaning university type wandered up and engaged me in conversation about the Bristol Tobacco Factory, a local professional theatre troupe. I can hold my own in these kinds of encounters, but even if I couldn't, I sensed that he would have willingly explored other topics until he found one that engaged me. I didn't feel isolated at any time.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Tea and coffee in proper china cups, plus a decent choice of biscuits. Wonderful!

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
10 – If you are of a more liberal theological persuasion and like to move in academic circles, this would obviously be a natural choice for you. However, it did not feel compartmentalised, and I had the impression that all sorts of people are actively embraced here.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
It certainly did, and it reminded me of how many different ways there are to be one.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
Charity Hamilton's evident wit in owning up to being a smoker and using the image of having a fag to make a theological point.
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