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1644: St Aldate's, Oxford, England
St Aldate's, Oxford, England
Mystery Worshipper: Academe.
The church: St Aldate's, Oxford, England.
Denomination: Church of England, Diocese of Oxford.
The building: From the outside, St Aldate's is a large, traditional, rather plain-looking Anglican church, its gravestones hidden behind railings and the front itself dominated by adverts for the Alpha course. One notable feature is its glass entrance – modern and impressive, it sets the tone for inside, which has clearly been the subject of recent and expensive refurbishment. Most of the church's original features are gone; there is evidence of a rood screen at the far end of the church, but nobody goes down there. With pews removed, the congregation now faces (on three sides) a space between two large pink marble pillars that go from floor to ceiling. In this space is a stage with steps leading up to it. The stage holds the band, the altar and the speakers for the church's impressive sound system. Around the stage, on the wall and pillars flanking it, are numerous TV screens and a projector screen (more on those later). Although one large banner hangs behind the stage (modern artwork with a Bible verse and Oxford landscape – very pretty), everything else is extremely plain. There are even plain, calico-coloured blinds hanging down in front of the stained glass windows. The church is extremely well lit. Much of the church floor is carpeted, although flagstones are visible in some areas.
The church: There are three services each Sunday, none of which could be called traditional. The church is very vibrant and very well organised, with a good mix of students and families. Central to their many activities are what they call pastorates – gatherings of 20 or so people meeting together during the week in houses across Oxford for food, worship, Bible study, prayer and fun. There are also several volunteer teams, including ACT!, which conducts outreaches to prisoners, the homeless, and others in the community; and Fuel for the Fire, which prepares people to serve in various aspects of the church's worship. There are specific worship-cum-social groups for undergrads, postgrads, teenagers and international students. At the service I attended, several other events were plugged, including an alternative Hallowe'en party, an action week of prayer, and a church weekend away in early 2009.
The neighbourhood: The church is directly opposite Christ Church College and next door to the House's smaller cousin, Pembroke. It's also a stone's throw from another of Oxford's churches, St Ebbe's.
The cast: Charlie Cleverly, rector, and Gordon Hickson, parish vicar, presided. Simon Ponsoby, pastor of theology, and Oli Benyon, youth pastor, also appeared by video link (no, really). Then there were the student pastors, Peter and Michelle Tepper, who spoke briefly, and the band (whose names I didn't get, sorry guys!).
The date & time: Sunday, 26 October 2008, 10.30am.

What was the name of the service?
‘Morning Service.

How full was the building?
It was easily the fullest church I've ever been in. People sat even where they couldn't possibly expect to see or hear. I can only imagine what it must be like at Christmas and Easter! Unsurprisingly, given its position, St Aldate's has a strong student presence, although there were a lot of young professionals and families. Some of the students and young people were dressed very casually, whereas the few over-60s looked smart (jacket and tie for the men). On the whole, people looked comfortably middle-class. I wasn't completely sure where to sit, and eventually settled on the third of a short row of seats, next to a pillar – relative privacy where I thought I could scribble down notes more or less unobserved. There was something about all that musical kit onstage that just screamed audience participation, and my reactionary high church tendencies sent me scuttling away from that as quickly as possible.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
There were two very smiley students proffering paperwork at the door, and they shook my hand before giving me two pieces of paper (more on those later). The other two seats on my row had already been staked with coats, but after a few minutes an absolutely lovely couple came and sat next to me. They were unquestionably the best part of my church experience, and if St Aldate's were to be congratulated on only one thing, it should be them. I actually felt a bit guilty – in their efforts to be welcoming, the lovely woman beside me gave me (unprompted) all the names I needed for filing my report. She was lovely, and gave me a hug during the peace – which, rather uncharacteristically, I didn't mind at all.

Was your pew comfortable?
St Aldate's has gone down the trendy Anglican route of ripping out pews to make way for uniform, stripped-wood-effect chairs. These were horrifically uncomfortable, and legroom was negligible. But with the exception of the sermon, we spent most of the service on our feet.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
It's a big city church in a university town, with equal parts students and families, so pre-service is never going to be quiet or peaceful. Nevertheless, I have to say that I loved it. There was a real sense of excitement and hope, with people dashing in out of the rain, herding in kids and exchanging greetings with their friends. Everybody looked happy and seemed positive. Again, due to my repressed, reactionary high church tendencies, I initially would have felt more comfortable with the traditional combination of silence and damp, broken only by the booming voice of an old age pensioner whose hearing aid is on the blink. But all that smiling was infectious, and I found myself smiling too, actively looking forward to the start of the service.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
My neighbours were talking to me, and so I missed the moment when the rector – a lovely man, with a touch of the versatile British character actor Jim Broadbent – started to wield his microphone above the clamour. The first thing I heard clearly was: "Welcome to church on this cold, rainy, grey Sunday morning."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
St Aldate's is beyond books. Books are not the St Aldate's way. I mentioned the very smiley students who loaded me down with paper on my way in. After a moment's reflection on my stint several summers ago at a theatre company, I was reminded of nothing so much as the leaflets with which we used to flyer the theatre seats whenever next season's play wasn't selling well. The leaflets asked for money, in the form of events coming up (most of which seemed to require cash down) and in letter form. There was a missive from rector Charlie Cleverly encouraging people to continue tithing, even in the face of the economic crisis. It seems that this is very popular with the St Aldate's congregation. Everyone discreetly averts their eyes from the collection plate, of course, but while stuffing the Mystery Worshipper calling card into its depths, I found it easy to bury beneath a fantasia of pink, green and blue banknotes. Clearly, the message is getting through. I thought it was a shame, though, that no order of service was provided. I've never been to a church without printed readings.

What musical instruments were played?
Taped worship/Christian pop music was playing before the service. As things got underway, a band took over consisting of keyboard, guitars and a rather impressive drum kit. The band are, it must be said, extremely good.

Did anything distract you?
This is a difficult question to answer. The service itself, with all the arm-waving, eye-closing, tongue-speaking style of spirituality that hundreds of people around me seemed genuinely to enjoy, left me twitchy and nervous. Also, the rector looked like Jim Broadbent. He did. And in front of me the most beautiful couple you've ever seen kept cuddling each other and praying in tandem (mostly with the boy apparently saying prayers for them both). And everybody in the ministry team seemed to be married to each other.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
So happy. So clappy. And, bizarrely, so determined to rip off all that is dreadful in American pop music. We sang at least six songs, all of which illustrated that – apparently – all evangelical music has the same tune. A mawkish, sentimental tune, more reminiscent of vintage Avril Lavigne (Canadian pop rock/pop punk singer) than anything I'd heard before. All the band members (British, from what I could tell) adopted nasal US croon tones. If this service were a film, I'd accuse it of a mawkish and grossly manipulative attempt to wring tears from its viewers. The beamed hymn lyrics were backed by images of rushing clouds, breaking waves and pulsing, setting suns. Or, for variation, a montage of twinkly candles. I swear the lights grew dimmer and brighter during the service; never mind mood lighting. Oh, but part of the service actually was a film, a short programme called Essentials, starring the rector (Charlie Cleverly) and youth pastor Oli Benyon. Benyon, if not already committed to ministry, should seriously consider auditioning for the long-running British children's TV adventure programme Blue Peter. Cleverly's monologue (repeating his letter on why people should tithe) jarred. First of all, it seemed ridiculous to be watching the man on film when he was also standing in front of me. Secondly, if the church is in such dire need of money, turning what are essentially parish notices into a docusoap seems like a colossal waste of cash. But still, each to his own. There was also a fair bit of speaking in tongues – my lovely neighbour did it, and so did the lead singer (this was less than helpful, as he was also leading the lyrics). Every so often, the rector interjected to suggest we turn some piece of sung or spoken thought into a personal prayer.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
40 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – Gordon Hickson is a very good preacher. His style was relaxed and surprisingly spontaneous, given that he delivered 40 minutes of highly allusive, well-prepared preaching. The notes he had, he barely glanced at. Regardless of your beliefs, he's well worth hearing.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The overriding theme, yet again, was money and why the church needed more of it. Key aspects of the preaching included Hickson urging worshippers (in an echo of Cleverly's letter and broadcast) to give more, despite and even because of the financial crisis, based on passages from scripture. He was certainly highly persuasive, moving from the strictly financial context to a broader consideration of dreams and visions for revival. In other news, Hickson told us: (1) Muslims are "blind" and need "their eyes to be opened." (2) That piece of legislation now before Parliament known as the Embryology Bill must be stopped. (3) Untold numbers of Hindus within an Indian leper colony have recently been converted to Christianity. I must admit such old-school rhetoric on the need for conversion and the absolute error of other faiths alarmed me.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The singing of my lovely neighbours. The wife in particular had a gorgeous contralto voice that I enjoyed following; a mercy given the nasal tenor in which much of the music was pitched. I must say that I also found the first half of the service intensely moving. While objectively knowing that the music was dreadful, I enjoyed it no end. By which I mean: I embarrassed myself by bursting into tears, and then felt much better for it. By the time I'd found a tissue and wiped the mascara off my chin, a weight had been lifted that I didn't know was there. Also, the disproportionately good-looking denizens of St Aldate's have produced a crowd of disproportionately good-looking children. They got up on stage and sang us a song. There were actions. It was chaos. Everyone cheered them. It was heavenly.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
It was too slick. It was too glossy. I couldn't shake the feeling that the service I was watching was the bastard child of a tambourine and televangelism (two things I have always associated with below rather than above). The moments when the on-screen lyrics completely failed to match what we were singing reminded me of bad karaoke nights, and the occasional, total failures of the congregation to respond to Cleverly's instructions were excruciating. In the latter instance, he summoned people to the front for prayer, and only one man went.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
There was no chance to be lost. The St Aldate's crowd is exceptionally friendly, especially when recruiting you for their impressive range of groups, cells and pastorates. I was slightly worried that I wouldn't be able to fulfill my hovering-time obligations without signing up for at least six courses.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Abundant! I'm not sure if the coffee was fairly traded (given the emphasis on international affairs during the sermon, I would imagine so), but it was plentiful, presented in paper cups with plastic lids. There were multiple stations for biscuits and teas. And, in what was probably the most familiar part of the morning, knee-high St Aldate's toddlers elbowed their way to the chocolate fingers as quickly as knee-high churchgoers elsewhere.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 – This isn't the place for scriptural or philosophical debate, but St Aldate's views on proselytism and tithing (for starters) would prevent it ever becoming my natural church home. On the other hand, I could see myself popping round for an occasional dose of un-self-conscious praising. It might just be good for my twitchy, Catholic Lite soul.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, in that the people were welcoming and it's always inspiring to see a genuinely thriving, multicultural Anglican church. No, in that I found the discussion of rescuing Muslims rather disturbing and the sort of view which, when advanced as representative of Christians worldwide, depresses and embarrasses me.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The positivity of those around me.
 
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