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2080: Bexley United Reformed, Bexley, Greater London
Bexley United Reformed
Mystery Worshipper: Wes Charles.
The church: Bexley United Reformed, Bexley, Greater London.
Denomination: United Reformed Church.
The building: The building is pleasing to look at, constructed of grey stone in late Victorian style. The foundation stone was laid in 1890 and apparently the building hasn't changed much since then, except for the addition of a church hall. The ceiling is quite impressive: vaulted and of dark wood. They have recently sold some of the pews and bought some comfortable chairs. We ended up on a pew, but hey, you can't win 'em all!
The church: Bexley Village has a number of churches, and considering that there must be all sorts of things going on, this seems an active church, with a full complement of scouting and guiding organisations, coffee mornings, cream teas every Monday, an afternoon concert once a month, tea dances, coffee bar and Sunday school.
The neighbourhood: Bexley is a fairly affluent area on the south east edge of London. The immediate area around the church is quite leafy, and Bexley town centre has a village feel with some very old buildings, restaurants, pubs, and a little stream just away from the centre. Surrounding the area are 1930s-type suburbs, and the A2 is a few minutes away. There are a number of churches in a very small area.
The cast: The Revd Alan Murphy, a visiting preacher who had been there a few times before. The church shares a minister with Geddes Place URC in Bexleyheath, which is where their regular minister, the Revd John Cook, was this morning.
The date & time: Sunday, 26 September 2010, 10.30am.

What was the name of the service?
Morning Service.

How full was the building?
Just under half full, including about 10 children in the Sunday school. The impression was of a reasonably-sized congregation, and actually more than I'd expected.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes. A nice lady, the wife of one of the church elders, gave us a warm welcome as we entered and handed us a piece of paper with some hymn words in a foreign language. It turned out that it was in Hebrew, and we learnt it later in the service (although I doubt many could remember it now!). As we sat down, a lady in front of us turned around to greet us.

Was your pew comfortable?
As previously stated, there was a mix of pews and comfortable padded cloth chairs. We were on a pew, which was fine.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
A quiet buzz of conversation not too loud but definitely not the sort of atmosphere where you feel awkward making any movement.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning. A pause for thought..." spoken by an older gentleman in a smart suit who looked a little like Prince Michael of Kent. He looked suitably conservative for my taste in services, and I sat back in anticipation of a nice traditional service. However, this turned out not to be the case. After his little intro, the elder whose wife had greeted us (again quite conservative looking and wearing a smart suit) welcomed today's visiting preacher, who then almost bounced onto the platform and started talking in the manner of a 1980s children's TV presenter genetically crossed with the British comedian Harry Enfield!

What books did the congregation use during the service?
The piece of paper previously mentioned and a copy of Mission Praise. During the service we referred to the Good News Bible, although it didn't match the New International Version that the preacher was using, which gave the congregation a nice double-take on everything he said!

What musical instruments were played?
There was an organ, which apparently works, and a piano, but the music was provided by a digital machine programmed with songs from Mission Praise and another URC hymn book. I was told that some weeks they have a pianist, but they like to give her some Sundays off to join the worship properly. I have to say, the digital box performed fairly well, although it had to be faded out at one point when the number of verses we sang contradicted the number on the recording!

Did anything distract you?
The microphone was turned up a little too loud. For some people who spoke, this was fine, but for a bouncing, jeans-clad preacher with a little too much energy for a Sunday morning, it was too loud and began to give me a headache.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Interesting question, as there was a bit of a mismatch between the congregation, who appeared quite stiff-upper-lip, and the preacher, who was somewhat more lively! I felt that the preacher was a wannabe stand-up comedian judging by the number of jokes he threw in. He obviously realised that the congregation were unused to his style, as he made a couple of funny references to this with lines like "Come on, clap your hands, don't just sit there muttering 'I don't go to a church like that,' because you do today!"

Exactly how long was the sermon?
24 minutes. This was quite an achievement as he stated at the beginning that he was aiming for 25 minutes, so he did quite well!

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 – It took me a while to warm to Alan Murphy. His children's TV presenter mannerisms and jokes weren't really my cup of tea at all, especially when it looked as if he'd make us all dance! (He didn't only the Sunday school!) However, I really enjoyed his sermon, which was delivered with passion and flair with excellent teaching. By the end, I was having a good laugh at his jokes and there were some really good messages in there.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The sermon was around Exodus 15, where the Israelites stop at a lake but the water is bitter to drink. God tells Moses to throw in a piece of wood and the water becomes sweet. I can't remember how we got there, but he went on to talk about God's people once having been a people to be feared, whereas now many Christians are afraid of others, not wanting to admit to going to church. He talked about Marches for Jesus in the early 70s (before my time, I'm afraid) and how there hasn't been one for a decade but that they have them in Brazil. We should all stand up more for our faith and step outside of our comfort zone to spread God's word. Toward the end of the sermon he referred back to the Bible passage and compared the piece of wood to Jesus (apparently the Hebrew word also means carpenter) making the bitter sweet. It was a good sermon.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
On the wall to my left was a cloth banner reading "Be still, and know that I am God." At a number of points during the service when the preacher was getting a bit over-lively, I glanced at the banner and relaxed nicely!

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The dreadful jokes!

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Not much chance. The aforementioned elder came to our pew for a chat. Then Kathy, the church secretary, spoke to us at length during coffee afterward. She told us a little about the church and their regular minister, and sent us away with a copy of the church magazine. I read that this morning on my way to work and it was an interesting read!

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Sorry, I didn't notice whether the coffee was fair trade or not. It came in nice pyrex cups and saucers that reminded me of my grandparents' church as a kid. There was a selection of biscuits and some bags of tomatoes on sale.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – I'm C of E born and bred and it would take a lot to drag me away from my usual church down the road. However, if I'd just moved to the area and had tried this church first, I could see myself making it my regular. There was a nice atmosphere, friendly people, and most importantly, very good teaching.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, definitely, especially when I realised I didn't have to dance during the service!

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The preacher's unusual style. Apparently on a previous visit, he came dressed as a Roman soldier!
 
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