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2038: Eastgate Baptist, Lewes, Sussex, England
Eastgate Baptist, Lewes, Sussex, England
Mystery Worshipper: Salskov.
The church: Eastgate Baptist, Lewes, Sussex, England.
Denomination: Baptist Union of Great Britain.
The building: There have been Baptists in Lewes since before 1741, but the present church was opened in 1843. It now presents a slightly schizophrenic appearance, being 19th century flint and brick construction with a modern yellow brick addition on its left hand side. There is a memorial to the 17 who died at the stake during the Marian persecution of 1554-7. The original pepper box tower was reconstructed as a pyramid shape in 1915 for safety reasons. The annex, fairly hideous from the outside, is very pleasant within. The overall effect is bright and cheerful.
The church: The website records many church groups for all ages. The old Boys' Brigade and Girl Guides have given way to more contemporary formations. There are meetings in local pubs, visits to the proms, and groups for those who are not Baptist, or necessarily even Christian. There seems to be a strong awareness that participation is possible without full commitment to the church, and this is catered for quite tactfully, even to the point of telling visitors at the service that the collection is purely for church member contributions. The church also has a long-standing interest in foreign missions, and various members pay visits to the countries involved.
The neighbourhood: Eastgate is at one side of the town centre, within hailing distance of the Harveys Brewery, and well placed for local involvement. Lewes is a town with a strong and living sense of its own history, as witnessed by the martyrs' plaque and the yearly ceremonies surrounding November 5th, whose torchlit processions require several weeks' preparation.
The cast: The Revd Tim Mitchell, associate minister.
The date & time: 8 August 2010, 10.30am.

What was the name of the service?
Morning Service.

How full was the building?
Pretty full. I estimated 50+ people of all ages. With the gallery, there is probably seating for around 120. The first to gather were the elderly, many of whom had organisational jobs to do, but families with children and young people rolled up close to starting time. The church loses some of its Glyndebourne contingent during the year, and its young members who are studying elsewhere. These it recaptures in the summer holidays, together with some of the many visitors to the town.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
Now this has never happened to me before, but as I was examining the plaque recording the reconstruction of the church tower, which is on an outside wall, a lady asked me if I needed help. I said I was planning to attend the service, and asked her if the tower replacement was war damage related. She promptly took me into the church and introduced me to an elderly gentleman who gave me the story. I was passed from hand to hand, asked if I was a visitor, how long I was staying, and where I came from. The chap sitting next to me also started a conversation before the service which he continued afterwards... You could say they were friendly!

Was your pew comfortable?
Very comfortable modern chairs. The interior of the building was revamped two years ago, carpeted, and new seating of generously sized upholstered chairs installed.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
It was busy and chatty in a cheerful, not over-loud, way. There were lots of preparations going on, and the ex-plumber working the mechanical magic was testing a DVD. Notices were projected before the service, which struck me as a good time-saving idea.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning, everybody, and welcome. It's good to see you."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
Songs of Fellowship and The Holy Bible, New International Version were on the slatted shelf beneath each chair. We did use the Bible, but song texts were projected onto the screens.

What musical instruments were played?
Digital organ and electric piano, courtesy of a visiting friend of the organist. In the 1870s an organ was bought from Seaford Parish Church. It was pronounced too expensive to repair, so in 1976 an Allen computer organ was added, though the original attractive pipework remains.

Did anything distract you?
After the first hymn, a "welcome" screen saver was in operation. I hoped that it would not be bouncing round the screens for the whole service, and fortunately it eventually disappeared.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Happy minus the clappy. Brisk, lively. Longish prayers and sermon, but otherwise down to earth. The first part of the service included a DVD in which a young convert for Islam testified. There was no opportunity to leave a calling card, so I was reduced to posting it.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
25 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
5 — Too long! Mr Mitchell is a one time scientist, and devoted an inordinate amount of time to "proving" the historicity and authenticity of the Bible reading. See below. I'm doubtful of attempts to prove something that in my view is essentially a matter of faith.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
He talked about believing the unbelievable, with an amusing reference to Alice in Wonderland, but then went on to prove the reliability of the New Testament passage Acts 1:1-11 (describing the many witnesses to Christ after the Resurrection, and then the Ascension). One of his arguments was the number of eye witnesses — a group of people often described by the police as notoriously unreliable.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
I'm not a fan of projected texts, but the modern hymns were well crafted, and there were some traditional ones as well. Lots of singing, in fact. And the organ and piano were well played and complemented each other. Also, and rather naughtily, just as I thought that we had another half an hour of service after the sermon, as would happen in the Church of England, and which would have given us a service length of an hour and a half, there was a blessing and a hymn and finish!

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
I was uncomfortable with the Islamic convert's apparently genuine belief that he was destined to hell before his conversion to Christianity. There seemed to be some enormous theological holes in the way he presented his experience, and I wonder how members of the congregation felt about this. Not something I felt I could broach over tea!

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
My pew neighbour continued chatting to me, showed me where the kitchen bar was, and introduced me to a couple of others. They get a few congregants from Glyndebourne, so their musical experience is rich.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Tea, coffee, in real mugs, though one lady asked for, and got, a cup and saucer. The chocolate cake had gone by the time I was served, but the biscuits were good. There was a book and card stall where fair trade was mentioned, so maybe the tea and coffee were fairly traded. I could have stayed chatting for much longer, but had to leave eventually.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
6 — The welcome was spectacularly warm — not intrusive, but genuine. These are lovely people. I don't know, however, how they would take to my rather pared down ideas of doctrine. Probably there is as great a spread of belief in this church as in any other, but I grew up in the Roman Catholic Church with too great an emphasis on purgatory to want to consider hell as a possibility.

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

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The lady approaching me outside the church to see if I needed help.
 
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