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|1608: St Mary
the Virgin, Ambleside, Cumbria, England
Mary the Virgin, Ambleside, Cumbria, England.
Church of England, Diocese
The first thing that strikes you about the skyline of Ambleside
is the spire of St Mary's, dominating this beautiful, bustling
tourist trap. As a monument to the glory of God it is quite
breathtaking. It is the perfect compass reference, visible for
miles from the fells that surround the village. At night it
is floodlit until midnight, a useful reminder that you really
should be in bed. The church was built by the Victorian architect
Sir George Gilbert Scott in 1854 just as Ambleside was beginning
its tourist boom. It is constructed from local slate which gives
it that worn, rugged look that speaks of the eternal. Deliciously
atmospheric. Inside, there is a strikingly beautiful reredos,
a gilt triptych of the Cross flanked by lamb and eagle.
There were a good spread of ages and a strong sense of family
and community. The church buildings and notice-boards present
well, indicating an involved congregation and genuine hospitality.
I note they had a week of mission in July which seems to have
been intelligently thought out, with apologetic debates on the
evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, etc., led by local bishops.
They have an active and well organised fair-trade group. There
is a strong ecumenical work in Ambleside. A few years ago the
Methodists sold their building to launch a joint-venture with
St Mary's; together they built a remarkable parish centre to
serve both churches and the local community. The Methodists
use it as their place of worship.
Ambleside is a popular tourist attraction in England's Lake
District. It sits at the head of Windermere, England's largest
natural lake. In the nearby village of Rydal is the house where
poet William Wordsworth lived for most of his life. The house
is open to the public but remains in the Wordsworth family to
this day. St Mary's is quite central to the village, set in
a beautiful, expansive churchyard surrounded by parkland, a
campsite, recreation ground, and extortionately expensive car-park.
There is quite a buzz to the place and it is well placed for
The Revd Canon Robert Coke, vicar, and a very young and very
nervous clergyman introduced only as Paul. He may have been
the Revd Paul Woodcock, associate priest, but it's also possible
that he was a visiting Methodist minister. The service had been
billed as a unified service, and the Revd Paul was wearing a
dark blue clerical shirt, as some Methodist ministers do.
The date & time:
Sunday, 10 August 2008, 11.00am.
What was the name of the service?
United All Age Worship with the Methodists (including the baptism
How full was the building?
About two-thirds full, at least 200 people, probably bulked
out by A's family and friends.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
A sign outside the porch read: "A warm welcome to you.
Please come and enjoy the beauty and peace of this much loved
church." Unfortunately the middle-aged lady at the door
completely ignored me, even though I said hello to her. To be
fair, I was almost late and the vicar had just started to speak.
Was your pew comfortable?
Stupid question – "comfortable pew" is an oxymoron.
Most pews seemed bare but ones towards the front had some individual
cushions to perch on. However, the foam in them was too soft
and thin to be of any use; I sat on a stack of three and still
got second-degree numb-bum.
How would you describe the pre-service
Almost missed it because I didn't know Ambleside on a Sunday
morning would be like Piccadilly Circus on a Saturday night.
It would have been nice to know that the church opens up its
churchyard to worshippers for free parking instead of having
to pay £3.60 for the privilege just the other side of the hedge.
Anyway, the pre-service atmosphere was excited and lively with
plenty of chat and kids squealing.
What were the exact opening words of the
"Good morning and a special welcome to all our visitors."
What books did the congregation use during the
An A5 pamphlet contained the entire order of service, including
songs, except for the opening and closing hymns which were from
Mission Praise. The Holy Bible, New International
Version was the pew Bible. Words to both hymns and songs
were also projected onto a screen at the front of the church.
What musical instruments were played?
Church organ for hymns. Songs were accompanied by an electronic
keyboard, two flautists, acoustic guitar and up to four singers.
The Revd Paul also played a trumpet. The PA was excellent, with
the sound-desk discretely and tastefully enclosed at the back
of the church.
Did anything distract you?
Several things. (1) When I sat down I noticed that the pews
were lettered and numbered in cinema fashion. I though that
maybe it was a "cafe-style" church and we were in
for popcorn and hotdogs. I was disappointed, though, and later
learned that it's because the church is hosting a series of
classical music concerts as part of the Lake District Summer
Music Festival. (2) Canon Coke's accent also kept me guessing
throughout the service. While he is a white, middle-aged gent,
his accent sounded curiously Jamaican. By the end I decided
that maybe he was a congenital Geordie (from England's Tyneside
region), sent to public school where his English master didn't
quite manage to get the received pronunciation to stick. (3)
The PC used to project the words crashed just before the first
song, so we had the boot-up screens flashing away as we sang.
We were into the second song before normal service was resumed.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip,
happy clappy, or what?
Middle of the road. Being all-age worship, there was a mix of
trad hymns and silly kids' songs. One was in an African tongue: Siyahamb' ekukhanyeni
kwenkhos repeated over and over. The Revd Paul sang it
through himself first and received a round of applause when
he managed it without a tongue-hernia. The congregation joined
in gamely and enjoyed the farce of it all. When we sang the
classic Sunday school song "Wide, wide as the ocean",
we were encouraged to fling our arms out vigorously on the word
"wide", as do the Sunday school children, and not
be afraid to hit our neighbours in the face with the backs of
our hands. This was a bit ripe given that it was directly after
the exchange of peace. Surprisingly, nearly everyone joined
in with great gusto. Finally, it would be terribly remiss of
me if I failed to mention the gospel reading, Matthew 14:22-33
(Jesus walks on water and bids Peter to do likewise). This was
enacted by children waving a blanket to simulate waves, with
The Revd Paul as Jesus and Canon Coke as Peter. Canon Coke did
a splendidly energetic job of rowing. Having watched the Olympic
men's sculls the previous day, I mused that he may just have
missed his true vocation. The reader paused for a long time
after verse 24 (the boat, battered by the waves, was far from
the land) and before verse 25 (Jesus came walking toward them),
explaining that he was just waiting for Peter to tire himself
out. That got the biggest laugh of the service.
Exactly how long was the
On a scale of 1-10, how
good was the preacher?
7 The Revd Paul was pretty highly-strung but did an admirable
job with a message simple enough for kids (ages eight and over
– younger ones went to the back for activities) but enough
substance for adults. A woman named Sally also did a splendid
job of crafts with the younger ones during the sermon. They
produced an impressive puppet-montage of the text which they
presented at the end and of which they were all proud as punch.
I noticed that this was not immediately disposed of, but pinned
up with previous week's work in the children's area. A nice
In a nutshell, what was
the sermon about?
Using the gospel text, the preacher made an acronym of FAITH:
Fear-Assures-Impossible-Trust-Honour. At first the disciples
were spooked, but Jesus assured them. Peter then did the impossible
by trusting Jesus, and this ultimately led to worship. This
is typical of our walk through life, alternately fearing/sinking
Which part of the service
was like being in heaven?
There was a tremendous sense of family and community throughout
the service. We all had a great deal of fun in our worship but
the solemnity of the occasion, especially the baptism, was not
diminished. At the baptism, the beautiful little baby wore an
exquisite, classic cream gown and didn't cry at all. As Canon
Coke held her, I was strongly reminded of the "father heart"
of God. But I felt sorry for dad and god-dad as they looked
like fishes out of water. Both wore very badly-fitted suits
and dad even wore a funeral tie.
And which part was like
being in... er... the other place?
I don't know what "hell" is in African, but Siyahamb'
ekukhanyeni kwenkhos came close to it. On a more sombre
note, I was struck by the predicament of A's family. It was
fairly apparent that few, if any, of them were regular attendees.
I felt that the family could take so much advantage of their
Saviour and the close, loving community that St Mary's obviously
is. But I feared that it was likely that their next appearance
in the church would be A's wedding. How sad that would be.
What happened when you
hung around after the service looking lost?
No chance of looking lost. Worshippers were directed to the
parish centre next door for refreshments, where I was engaged
in conversation immediately. Altogether I was greeted enthusiastically
by at least seven people. This more than made up for the door-greeter,
who must have been having a bad day. The room was bright and
airy with an amazing 180 degree vista across parkland and the
foot of Loughrigg Fell.
How would you describe the after-service
Fair-trade tea and coffee were served with supermarket milk.
There were also apple and orange juice, though I couldn't see
whether they were fair-trade also. Given the excellence of the
facilities, I was disappointed that drinks were served in disposable
cups. Worst of all was the fact that there were no biccies!
Nothing, nil, nada, zip. This appalling faux-pas was partially
redeemed by a cake stall outside where we purchased a rather
scrummy, home-made apple pie which I had after lunch.
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 I'm a bit more charisgelically inclined but I wouldn't
feel out of place here at all. If I were a seeker looking for
a caring community, I couldn't do better than start at St Mary's.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a
Oh yes. Praise God for the communion of saints.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
Canon Coke's rowing technique.
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