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1852: St Mary the Blessed Virgin, Woodnesborough, Kent, England
St Mary the Blessed Virgin, Woodnesborough, near Sandwich, Kent, England
Photo: John Salmon
Mystery Worshipper: Miss Ericord.
The church: St Mary the Blessed Virgin, Woodnesborough, near Sandwich, Kent, England.
Denomination: Church of England, Diocese of Canterbury.
The building: St Mary's is a Norman building (1180) with a wooden tower in place of a spire, which was removed in 1745. It is topped with a pretty cupola and weather vane, thought to be a result of Dutch immigration. It sits in an ancient churchyard which continues across the road and looks out over farmland. Inside is whitewashed, with stained-glass windows and a spectacular vaulted wooden roof. Special mention must be made of the flowers, which were beautiful, although the effect was rather spoiled by a Christmas tree with sparse multicoloured lights on it. It didn't go!
The church: The benefice includes the nearby village of Staple and shares a ministry team and rotas. There are links with nearby villages and the medieval town of Sandwich with a Churches Together group. According to their website, the church runs groups for children from toddlers to teens, men's and ladies' fellowship groups, Bible studies, various music groups, and an informal monthly coffee meeting seeming a lot for a small village. Sunday services rotate family services, Common Worship communion services with prayer ministry, and once a month an 8.00am communion service followed by morning worship, described as a "non-eucharistic service of outreach."
The neighbourhood: Woodnesborough is a small rural village with a population of around 800. There is a single pub, and I understand that their one village shop-cum-post office closed fairly recently. However, the church and village websites list a variety of activities from quiz nights to community environment days. There is a strong local farming community.
The cast: No one was introduced. The rota on their website says that "Rob Stephenson" led the service, although he is not listed on the Ministry Team page. However, the photo of the vicar, the Revd Daniel Harrison, is an exact match for the worthy gentleman who presided! He was assisted by "Gemma," who gave the readings, and "Tessa" (the vicar's wife), who led the children through their section (deduced from the vicar's thank-yous afterwards). The organist was Tim Hicks.
The date & time: Thursday, 24 December 2009, 4.30pm.

What was the name of the service?
Crib Service.

How full was the building?
By the time everyone was in, the main section was almost full, around 120 people. Most seemed to be families of the children taking part.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
A man on the door said "Good afternoon" as he handed me a hymn book, but that was it.

Was your pew comfortable?
It was a standard wooden affair with a cushion – comfy enough for a 40-minute service. There was enough leg room to sit comfortably, but kneeling would have required advanced yoga, although there were kneelers.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The gentle organised chaos that pervades any place in which a children's production is about to start.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good afternoon, everyone" followed by a mumble from the congregation. "I think we can do better than that," the vicar continued.

What books did the congregation use during the service?
The Complete Anglican Hymns Old and New and a printed service sheet.

What musical instruments were played?
Pipe organ.

St Mary the Blessed Virgin, Woodnesborough, near Sandwich, Kent, England
Photo: John Salmon

Did anything distract you?
The service started with the lights on at the front but not over the congregation, and candles lit in brackets on the pillars. All very pretty, but when we came to sing, no one could see! So there was a flurry of torches until someone snapped the lights on midway through the second verse of "While Shepherds Watched."

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Fairly stiff as expected with a group of rare attendees singing hymns they only sing once a year. The choir stalls were empty. We did, however, sing "Little Donkey," which I haven't sung since I was about six years old, so that pleased me.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
There was no sermon. Instead, an extremely patient lady herded the children into reproducing the crib scene. She read the story with gusto and cued the children into place as she did: "There were shepherds ... shepherds? ... SHEPHERDS! ... tending their sheep ... SHEEP? ... have we any more sheep?" and so on. The relevant children marched up the aisle to join the scene. Any other children present were also invited to join in, which was nice. The culmination was a foot-high star that descended over the scene on a bit of string slung over a beam way up in the ceiling and surreptitiously let down by the vicar at the crucial moment. Simple, but very effective.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Ironically, the moment I stepped out of the church was the most heavenly (see later)!

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Well, there was the obligatory young little devil zooming up and down the aisle, but anyone who complains about children in a children's service has clearly missed the point.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Nothing. The congregation were too busy rounding up their children. There was a gentleman gathering hymn books and a lady in a green suit bustling about, but nobody spoke to me. After a few minutes, I gave up. The vicar had posted himself at the door, and he shook my hand and wished me a merry Christmas as I left. Just as I was mentally adjusting my scores down a notch, I stepped out of the porch and onto the path through the churchyard to a most beautiful sight: The path had been lined with luminaria – flickering candles placed in small paper bags weighted down with sand, as is common in Hispanic cultures. What a lovely surprise!

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none which surprised me. Assuming that most of the attendees were families of the participants and that there may have been a significant number of visitors who were non-regulars, what an opportunity for fellowship (however brief) was missed!

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 – I'd have to come to a regular service and see if it was more engaging. This service was clearly geared entirely toward the children doing their scene and I'm afraid I could not gain any sense of peace, even during the prayers. However, I suspect they would be a friendly bunch underneath.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, for the carols and the sweetness of the children's crib scene.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The star descending from on high.
 
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