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1907: Christ Church, Milton-next-Gravesend, Kent, England
Christ Church, Milton-next-Gravesend, Kent, England
Photo: David Anstiss
Mystery Worshipper: Wes Charles.
The church: Christ Church, Milton-next-Gravesend, Kent, England.
Denomination: Church of England, Diocese of Rochester.
The building: A traditional-looking Gothic style building, dating from 1935, of gray stone blocks with a tower. It replaces an earlier church dating from 1856 that had to be demolished following the collapse of the roof. There is a car park at the front, and a grassed area. Inside, the walls are white, which makes the wooden beams stand out quite strikingly. The most noticeable thing was all the classical-looking artwork on the walls paintings down each side of the nave that would not have looked out of place in an art gallery, and were really interesting to look at. Other than this, there were some boards displaying children's art work, and a do-it-yourself looking cross on the opposite side to the pulpit. The cross had names of other churches written on it in pen, perhaps local churches. A stone font with a very ornate wooden cover stands at the rear of the nave.
The church: The church has a huge number of programmes, including Brownies and Guides, pre-school services, youth clubs, "God's Gang" (children's church), and family fun days. There is currently an outreach programme to the parish to encourage more people to come to the church.
The neighbourhood: Milton-next-Gravesend is actually part of the town of Gravesend, a very historic town at the end of the Thames east of London. The town appears in the Domesday Book as Gravesham and was at the time owned by Odo, Bishop of Bayeux. Pocahontas, the native American princess from the Virginia colony who had married the English settler John Rolfe and had returned to London with him, died on board a ship returning to Virginia in March 1617 just as it left Gravesend. She is buried in the graveyard of St George's church in the town centre, although the exact location of the grave is unknown.
The cast: The Revd Sue Brewer, vicar, led the service, along with the Revd Jacqueline Littlewood, assistant priest.
The date & time: Ash Wednesday, 17 February 2010, 7.30pm.

What was the name of the service?
A Service for Ash Wednesday.

How full was the building?
The church is a large one and the congregation of only 17 made it feel even larger! There was also a choir of 12, two priests, and the organist. However, I'm told that on a typical Sunday service they get quite a good crowd.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes, there was a sidesman giving out service sheets by the door. He welcomed me with a friendly "Hello" and a comment about the cold weather. I then went to sit down, and a few minutes later he came over to welcome me properly, asking if I was a visitor, etc.

Was your pew comfortable?
Rows of old-ish wooden chairs. They were surprisingly comfortable for the hour-long service.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
I had reason to believe that Mrs Charles might be recognised by someone, so I let her go in several minutes before I did. When I finally entered, I found her in quiet contemplation along with most of the other congregants. There were some quiet murmurs or polite chatter.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good evening, and welcome to our service for Ash Wednesday."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
Two hymn books, a thin one entitled Songs for God's People and the more traditional Hymns Ancient and Modern, New Standard. There were no Bibles on the seats.

What musical instruments were played?
Organ. The console was at the side of the chancel, but the pipes were invisible, hidden in an organ loft, which made it quite indistinct and hard to hear.

Did anything distract you?
The wall paintings were a worthy distraction, but I was also distracted by the organ. It appeared to be a large instrument, but its effects were wasted because the pipes were tucked away in an organ loft. This, combined with a tall, long church, made the sound echo a lot. As a congregation, we couldn't hear the individual notes, meaning it was very difficult to follow the organ during the hymns. Sometimes, we found ourselves nearly half a line ahead of or behind the organ. Finally, I was struck by the fact that the altar party and organist were all women, as were the majority of the choir save for two tenors and one bass.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Pretty formal. The nave was very long, and it was nice to see that the altar was at the east wall where it should be, rather than brought forward. I like that nice and formal and traditional, so it suited me very well. I guess Ash Wednesday is a more serious type of service, and this was reflected in the style of the liturgy.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
9 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – The vicar is a very competent preacher. Her style was very clear to follow and she got the message across really well. The sermon was delivered from the floor rather than from the pulpit.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
She compared the corporate salvation of the Old Testament with the individual salvation of the New Testament. The first reading was a passage from Isaiah about fasting and people just going through the motions rather than fasting from the heart. We should be careful that we don't just go through the motions in our Christian life. She went on to talk about making some sort of a personal commitment for Lent, and also about the church as a whole praying for each other.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The paintings on the wall were lovely.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The first hymn! Perhaps the intention was not to have too rousing a hymn at the beginning of a contemplative service, but they took it too far. I didn't know it, no one else seemed to know it, and it was a pretty dreary hymn as well, mostly just on one note. Add to that the poor acoustics, and you have four verses of nice organ harmonies and lots of people awkwardly looking at their hymn books and not joining in!

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I'm afraid the vicar did recognise Mrs Charles, as I had feared would happen, so I joined the two of them as they were chatting away. We weren't exactly your lost strangers, but based on the welcome I received, I imagine people would have been pretty friendly had we been.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none it was an evening service and people left to go home.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 – It's hard to judge what it would be like on a Sunday morning, but everyone seemed friendly and welcoming, the sermon was very good and gave me things to think about, and the style of service matched my preferences. If I lived in the area, I would certainly visit on a Sunday and see what it was like with a larger congregation.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, particularly the part of the sermon where the vicar talked about outreach programmes of the parish.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
Wondering whether the men occasionally feel a little left out surrounded by all those women!
 
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