|1146: St Lawrence, Appleby-in-Westmoreland, Cumbria, England|
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| Mystery Worshipper: Bishop of Stortford.
The church: St Lawrence, Appleby-in-Westmoreland, Cumbria, England.
Denomination: Church of England.
The building: The church is a long, low red sandstone building which has clearly evolved over the centuries. The square tower is the oldest part, dating back to the 12th century, with more recent additions in the the 14th and 17th centuries. The church gets a mention in Simon Jenkins’ book as one of England’s best 1000 churches. From the outside, it gives the impression of being an enormous rambling edifice, but inside seems quite modest.
The church: The parish is called St Lawrence’s Appleby & St John’s, Murton-Cum-Hilton; St James Ormside; St Peter’s Asby. So it’s clearly one of those places where several older parishes have been merged into one great sprawling rural parish in order to make them viable.
The neighbourhood: Appleby-in-Westmoreland is in the picturesque Eden Vale, between the Cumbrian Mountains and the North Pennines in the northwest of England. It was the County Town of Westmorland and must have enjoyed great political influence back then. But in 1974 the counties of Westmoreland and Cumberland merged to form Cumbria, and Westmoreland is no more. Today Appleby's main activity is tourism.
The cast: The Rev. Roger Collinson was celebrant; the Rev. Anthony Clegg preached.
The date & time: 31 July 2005, 10.30am.
What was the name of the service?
How full was the building?
I estimated 50-60 people were in the congregation, with perhaps another 15 in the choir. The building could have comfortably held three times this number.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
I was greeted with a "Good morning" by a member of the congregation who arrived in the porch at the same time as I. Someone else handed me the service books with another cheerful "Good morning," and when I dithered looking for a seat, a very polite and helpful church warden ushered me to an empty pew (see below).
Was your pew comfortable?
The pews were traditional wooden box pews, with a thin strip of felt on them in an effort to make them seem less basic. The most uncomfortable aspect was the kneeler, which was a high, upholstered bench. It was so high that the only way you could comfortably kneel was to perch on the edge of the pew in a most awkward position which did not feel the least bit humble. There were, I later discovered, two very comfortable pews in the church. The front two boxes were fully upholstered and plush lined. These were described as the Corporation pews, where the mayor and town councillors sit for civic services.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Friendly, relaxed, and by no means hushed, chatter. The organist started a voluntary a few minutes before the service in an attempt to drown out the conversations. The volume of chattering promptly rose above the organ.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Will the congregation please stand."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Common Worship Holy Communion Order One and Common Praise hymn book – the ubiquitous red books – an A4 readings sheet and an A5 newsletter with collect and music for the Lord’s Prayer.
What musical instruments were played?
An organ – and what an organ. The instrument is one of the treasures of this church. It was donated to the town by the Bishop of Carlisle in 1683, having previously been used at Carlisle Cathedral since 1542. Although it was renovated in the 1970s, the organ case is still the original, and it is considered to be the oldest working organ in Britain. A small electric organ at the front of the church was also used to accompany the communion hymn.
Did anything distract you?
I found very little to distract me during the service. There were a few toddlers somewhere at the back of the church, supervised and well behaved, but they were doing what toddlers do in any situation – making noise. Though this was a distraction from time to time, I’m always glad to see – and hear – young children in church.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The worship was absolutely bog standard, middle of the road Church of England Common Worship. No attempt was made at any catholic ceremony, but neither was there anything that could be described as "happy clappy."
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 Father Clegg opened with a joke, which was delivered well enough to get a laugh, and then beat about the bush for several minutes. He finally came to what I thought was the main point of the sermon, introducing it as "one final thought."
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Loaves and fishes. First of all, when we offer children food or drink, we always tell them to "say when." God doesn’t know when to "say when" and he just keeps giving to us, turning five loaves and two fishes into a feast with twelve baskets over. We must respond to each other in the same way, especially when famine wreaks such human hardship, as in Niger. But we never do. Our own generosity is always hedged around with excuses and concerns about what we feel we can afford. We come to Jesus with a fragment of the love and generosity we should be able to give. And "one final thought" – but even with these small fragments, Jesus makes a feast.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The psalm. In a service with so little in the way of ceremony, it was a joy to hear the psalm done so well. It was beautifully sung by a member of the choir with a sung response from the congregation. Such a pleasant surprise when I’d been expecting a spoken psalm.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The box pews with doors on them. I’ve not been to a church with these dreadful things before. When I arrived there were two or three people in each pew with the doors closed behind them. It was so uninviting to be faced with all these closed doors. It would feel like intruding into someone else's private space if you opened the door and sat with a stranger. So I dithered around trying to find an unoccupied one. Luckily I was rescued by the previously mentioned warden and ushered to a suitable seat. The box pews also seemed to deter any movement around the church during the exchange of peace.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I was immediately invited to stay for a cup of coffee, which I did. As soon as I had a cup in my hand I was engaged in conversation by a few members of the congregation. On hearing that I was on holiday, they offered me advice on parking locally and recommended some local tourist attractions.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Instant supermarket brand coffee in disposable cups, with biscuits.
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 A typical Church of England parish church where I would feel at home.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The advice about the parking attendants in the nearby town of Penrith. It would have been an expensive holiday otherwise.