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1784: High Street Chapel, Hopton, Diss, Norfolk, UK
High Street Chapel, Hopton, Diss, Norfolk, UK
Mystery Worshipper: AJH.
The church: High Street Chapel, Hopton, Diss, Norfolk, UK.
Denomination: Independent, with Brethren roots.
The building: Modern, recently extended from a single-storey building which was moved from elsewhere, apparently wooden in structure, probably similar to many small village halls. This had replaced an 1850s building, now demolished. The extension alters the character completely in a very positive way, giving a squarish, open main hall with roof lighting, library, storage and office. It's a bit like a contemporary school assembly hall but with a carpet, good chairs and well appointed.
The church: Friendly, drawing from Hopton and the surrounding villages. They are involved in some activities in the community, e.g. running after-school clubs in two schools (the village school is Church of England). In their own building they have day care for the elderly, ladies keep fit, ladies' volleyball, ladies' coffee evening... but strangely, nothing specifically for men.
The neighbourhood: Hopton is a linear village with a fish and chip shop, two pubs and some other shops.
The cast: Too numerous to mention, but Betty kicked off the proceedings, then there was Paul, Phil and a few others, in typical Brethren style. Their website says, "After a member of the church has opened with a short reflection, the service is opened to all to lead the church in a time of worship and reflection, culminating in the sharing of bread and wine." That describes it pretty well. In practice, the service was made up of talking (preaching or testimony), praying and singing, plus the communion. There was no liturgy, set prayers, intercessions, or silence (except during communion).
The date & time: 4 November 2007, 11.30am. [This report is being published almost two years after the event as we weren't able to source a photograph of the chapel – Editor]

What was the name of the service?
Communion.

How full was the building?
Quite full, with 60 or 70 people. Some 80 per cent of the chairs were occupied, but there was room for many more. The congregation was fairly mixed in terms of age, including a few teenagers and younger.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
Someone handed us a notice sheet on arrival: "Would you like one of these?" A younger person handed us each a hymnbook. In the main hall, three people shook hands with us, one said "Good to see you," and we had a short conversation before the service. They offered us a tour of the building, because that was what we were particularly interested in. More conversation afterwards.

Was your pew comfortable?
Individual upholstered chairs, which were comfortable.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Noisy, busy.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning, welcome to any new friends..."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
All the regulars seemed to bring their own Bibles. We weren't offered one, which was a pity because there were so many Bible references. Later, we found there were church Bibles in a cupboard, so we could have got one if we had known. The hymn book was
Songs of Fellowship, but most people looked at the words on the projector screen, which kept up well, even with spontaneous hymn suggestions. All the songs were in the hymn book.

What musical instruments were played?
Organ/keyboard, two guitars and flute.

Did anything distract you?
The building! But that was the main reason we went really, having been recommended to see this excellent, modern building in a relatively small Norfolk village. The colour scheme inside was neutral greys with blue carpet, light oak doors and pine skirting, wall uplighters, and a good pedestal flower arrangement on the small dais at the front (which wasn't used in the service). Seating was arranged in a U shape around the communion table. One male speaker had a silver stud in one ear.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
I liked it because although the singing was hearty and enthusiastic, there was no clapping after or during songs, no hand-waving or whooping or cheering. That's Brethren for you, but no lips were stiff. There were no songs at the beginning; we went straight into the opening reflection, an indication of the emphasis on the Bible.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
There were so many, I lost count! Betty's "short reflection" or "opening word" lasted about 10 minutes. The next was nine minutes, then seven, a couple of shorter ones and the "closing word" was seven minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – That score is for Betty, the first one. Very Bible-centred.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Betty's reflection was about the looks that people give, and in particular the way Jesus looked at people, and how God knows us inside. Interestingly, this theme of looks and relationships was picked up well by subsequent speakers and in some of the spontaneous songs. It wasn't a random collection of contributions. It seemed that the Spirit was moving and prompting testimony and songs. Texts included verses from Luke, Proverbs, James, John and the Song of Solomon. One might have suspected that the whole thing was orchestrated rather than spontaneous, in the same way that many jazz improvisations are in fact scored and practised many times beforehand. However, although the opening word and closing word had clearly been prepared beforehand, and probably some of the songs chosen already, the rest did appear to be genuinely unorchestrated. This is not a criticism, far from it.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The Breaking of the Bread, which was passed around informally and silently.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Only not having a Bible, and not being offered one. It can make you feel a bit inferior.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
No time to do that! We had a tour of the building and talked about the church, its involvement in the community, and how the building was funded and built. I don't think anyone could escape without being spoken to by several people.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There wasn't any. Apparently they have coffee after the evening service. At 12.45pm, most people want lunch anyway.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 – Although it's difficult to judge from just one service, I fear I would miss liturgy, ordered prayers and structure, but there would be plenty of compensations.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The shortest evangelistic sermon ever, as part of one contribution: "If you aren't a Christian, be one!" And the building.
 
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