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2301: St Hildeburgh’s, Hoylake, Wirral, England
St Hildeburgh Holylake (Exterior)
Mystery Worshipper: Torold.
The church: St Hildeburgh’s, Hoylake, Wirral, England.
Denomination: Church of England, Diocese of Chester.
The building: A large church of pleasing red terra cotta brick under a slate roof, with porch and bell tower. The interior is well lit and colourful. The high altar is impressive and has a wooden reredos and panelling depicting the Good Shepherd. The west window, late decorated style, has a representation of Christus Rex. The south window of the sanctuary is modern painted glass and shows the Liverpool waterfront and a view of the Mersey. On the opposite wall in the sanctuary is a huge triptych painted in the style of the pre-Raphaelites, showing St Hildeburgh with an angel on each side. The colours are lovely and fresh, almost as if painted yesterday. An interesting feature of the large pulpit is its sounding board with fretwork around the top.
The church: Judging by the parish news sheet, St Hildeburgh’s tries hard to reach out to the wider community in Hoylake with its varied activities. There is ecumenical carol singing in the locality. The Ark (homeless shelter in Birkenhead) will be feasting on Christmas goodies provided by St Hildeburgh’s congregation. School Christmas service in church. Prayer group meets regularly.
The neighbourhood: Hoylake is a small seaside town in north-west England near to Liverpool. The King’s Gap, where the church is sited, is a thoroughfare with an interesting history. It leads to the sea front at Hoylake, from where William of Orange set sail with his troops for Ireland. The Royal Liverpool Golf Course is close by. Shops aplenty, wine bars and restaurants, all lie along the Row, Market Street. The artist Turner rented a room on Market Street and commented on the remarkable sunsets along the coast here. Bracing breezes blow in from the River Dee with fine views to the Welsh hills.
The cast: The Revd Martin Flowerdew, vicar, led the worship and preached.
The date & time: 4 December 2011, 10.00am.

What was the name of the service?
The Christmas Tree Festival Service.

How full was the building?
Less than half full. Plus robed choir of approximately 10 members.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
A man said hello as he handed me my service sheet and pew sheet.

Was your pew comfortable?
Yes. I could have sat on it all day and wanted to take it home with me. It was a rush-bottomed chair with place to put your books.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Merry organ music, including "O Tannenbaum", greeted one on arrival. There was some quiet talking in the ranks. A little child was amusing himself in the children’s corner.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"The grace and mercy of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
Hymns Ancient and Modern, Revised and Mission Praise. Also a service sheet with prayers and responses.

What musical instruments were played?
The church pipe organ.

Did anything distract you?
I was pleasantly distracted by the sight of around two dozen Christmas trees arranged down both side aisles, bedecked in different themes with coloured lights, baubles and tinsel, some lights being of the flashing variety. These imparted a warm, cosy glow, reflecting in the red-bricked interior. I felt snug and at home.

St Hildeburgh Holylake (Trees)

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
This was ordinary C of E worship, bordering on middle-of-the-road.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
13 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 – The Revd Martin Flowerdew (love the name!) bears a striking resemblance to a certain red-robed seasonal gentleman. He preached eloquently from notes. It was like listening to sermons of yesteryear where the preacher expounded on a well-prepared topic.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The pagan origins of the Christmas tree, the traditional part they play, and the Christian symbiosis of the Christmas tree. The decoration of homes and churches with evergreens – holly, ivy and mistletoe – was seen by some to be pagan. Sacrifices to the god Thor were made under oak trees. In the 8th century St Boniface ordered a sacrifice ceremony to stop and the tree to be felled. A fir tree was found to be growing in the branches. So rather than seeing this as an act of destruction, it should be a scene of new life. Instead of looking at different things, we should look at things differently, in a new way, e.g. observing the smelly drunk on the street and seeing in him the possibilities of beauty and love. Christmas trees and their lights remind us of Christ as the light of the world – and they are pointing to heaven.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
I felt very at home here. If this is heaven, then I have made it! Listening to the sermon, I would have liked some more; I was just getting in to it and nodding in agreement when it sadly came to an end.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The organist did not give much of an introduction to the hymns and tended to romp along at a fair lick. I was quite out of breath by the end!

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Two ladies said to me, "Are you coming for refreshments?" These were billed on the service sheet but it was nice to be asked. I inspected the Christmas trees and several people spoke to me; they were pleasant and friendly, and we enjoyed talking about all the effort and energy that had obviously gone into putting on this Treefest.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Tea, coffee and juice, (coffee was fair trade, don’t know about the tea) assorted biscuits, mince pies. Cups and saucers.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 – This church is trying hard to become a hub in the neighbourhood following an interregnum. The new vicar is very hands-on, apparently, and gets things done. He appears to lead from the front and is encouraging. He does all he can to engender the good will of the parish.

St Hildeburgh Holylake (Mural)

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?
A little girl in the offertory procession, wearing a pink, sparkly sequined top.
 
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