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  1043: Metropolitan Tabernacle, Elephant & Castle, London

Metropolitan Tabernacle, Elephant and Castle, London

Mystery Worshipper: Arcturus.
The church: Metropolitan Tabernacle, Elephant and Castle, London.
Denomination: Independent Baptist (they left the Baptist Union in 1887).
The building: Allegedly the site of the burning of the Southwark martyrs, this huge classical building was erected in the late 19th century. The front looks like the Britsh Museum, although the inside has been destroyed twice – once by fire in 1898 and then by the Luftwaffe in 1941. While the outside is as impressive as any church in Britain, the inside is 1957, with the corridors and staircases looking like council offices. The hall is a massive (getting on for a 1000-seater, I'd say) balconied theatre.
The church community: Met Tab has had posters on the tube for many years (using the same 60s design), advertising themselves to all walks of life and all nationalities. This seems to have worked, as the congregation is drawn from the four corners of the earth, with about half being Afro-Caribbean. They also have a big student following (there are many local universities) and claim to have London's biggest Sunday School. They also have a Deaf Bible Fellowship, which I think was going on at the same time as the service I attended.
The neighbourhood: Central London is under a mile away, as is the River. Brixton and Clapham are the same distance in the other direction. Elephant and Castle is the historical centre of hat-making in the capital, but is now a bit run down, with trendy pockets.
The cast: Apart from about two minutes of notices, every word of of the 85 minute service was spoken by Dr Peter Masters, the pastor of the church. Tall, smartly dressed and with a lovely voice, he could easily have passed for a FTSE 100 Chairman. Somebody else, unnamed, gave the notices.

What was the name of the service?
Service with teaching ministry, 11am.

How full was the building?
Downstairs was full – about 400 people. The balcony was two-thirds full, with about another 300. It's difficult to say exactly how full the building was, as during the hymns, latecomers were admitted. Quite a few seemed to come for the teaching only, for which the children left.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
I came out of the wrong tube exit and ended up running across the road in order not to be late. I got there with about seven minutes to spare and was greeted with: "It's full. Please go upstairs." Pre-service prayers had already started (at about 5 to 11), and so I waited outside the balcony to be let in, with a crowd of others. The people either side of me "checked me out", but said nothing. The real "welcome" happened later!

Was your pew comfortable?
Upstairs is lecture theatre style with comfortable benches. Probably more comfortable than any other church in the UK I've ever been to.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Would sombre be the right word? Solemn? Even the childen were deadly quiet. People filed in, sat down, prayed and read their Bibles. These people take their religion very seriously. They ally themselves with the Puritans who founded America, and so there are no pictures or crosses on walls. The main hall is totally bare apart from a large Bible quote on the front wall.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"First scripture is Psalm 84."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
Psalms and Hymns of Reformed Worship, which is an in-house hymn book. Most of the hymns are versions of the psalms, with some permitted extras, and all are 19th century "blood and thunder" hymns. Almost everybody else used a Bible to follow the readings, but foolishly I hadn't brought one with me. From what I could see, people were using all kinds of versions, but I wasn't offered one, nor did the people next to me offer to share, which I thought was a bit off. One the way out, I spotted that there were copies available to borrow on a book shelf.

What musical instruments were played?
There is a piece on the church website as to why only the four instruments (psaltery, harp, cymbals and trumpet) mentioned in God's commandment to David are permitted in worship. Anything else would would be "aesthetic" and therefore Catholic and sinful. All singing was accompanied on a large, powerful organ. I'm sure that somewhere on the website there is a justification for this, but I can't find it.

Did anything distract you?
Apart from the attractive girls – of which there were very many – it would be difficult to be distracted in a Puritan church. I guess that's the point. Peter Master's voice is rich and creamy and the flock hang on his every word, babies and grannies alike. So many signs tell you to turn off your mobile that I checked about 10 times. The place is warm and comfortable, if stark.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Stiff and formal. People listened, read, took notes and took notice. Apart from singing, not a single word was spoken by any member of the congregation. One half-joke in the sermon raised a polite laugh.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
42 mins... and to be honest, it flew by.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – Dr Masters gets full marks for style, as he was polished and very, very engaging. One thing to note is that in no way was this charismatic. Here was a man giving a carefully crafted talk from notes in a stern Puritan style. "Preaching" is not allowed as it is aesthetic and therefore sinful.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
It was a careful description of what happened as Paul moved from Athens to Corinth, as recorded in the book of Acts, chapter 18. The chapter has 27 verses, and 42 minutes got us into the late teens before Dr Masters ran out of time. There were oblique references to the evil world around us, the evil people in it and the evil they do, but no direct mention of anything outside the Bible. Masters gave us four things to take away: 1. Leaving Athens was very difficult for Paul to do as he had been so successful there. 2. When Paul was poor, he worked hard and didn't rely on charity. 3. The presentation of Christ's teaching is not enough to bring people into the church. They need to be reasoned with in order to "soften their will". 4. Paul was often afraid of what would happen to him, and he was often ill. However, his enormous courage saw him through.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Seeing so many people from different walks of life, nationalities and ages all flocking to worship is good. Most came in best suits or in very smart clothing, some were in African costume, and others were scruffy. They paid attention to the sermon and were taking it in. The singing was also very good.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The ultra low point had yet to come. What happened after the service actually scared me – and I played school rugby in the front row. More on this in a moment.

If intercessory prayers were said, what issues were raised?
The prayers last 10-12 minutes, and here's a summary: Thank you, God, for not letting us be like the evil people we have to share our world with. Thank you for giving us emancipated minds. Thank you for showing us what you want. Please punish everybody else in everlasting wrath. Since you were nailed naked to a tree in agony, dying a terrible death, please torture everybody else to make them sorry. Amen. There was no mention of anything that could be classed as current affairs.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Oh dear, oh dear. I am 99 per cent certain that I was rumbled by a young city gent sitting a few pews away. He was watching me intently throughout the service, and frowned as I took notes. He was waiting for me at the top of the stairs and gave me an interrogation worthy of the SAS handbook. "Give me your name, address, contact details, list of previous churches and place of work right now." Thank God my story (just) held together. The questions were then asked again. I was to come to Bible study during the week, and would be expected to be there next week at the same time. After I mentioned that Dr Masters has one-to-ones with the flock after the service, I was frogmarched (I'm not kidding) to see him, and assured he would want to talk to me at length. I was taken downstairs, down long, unlit corridors and told to wait in an anteroom. My wrist or shoulder was held all the time. Judging by the number of people ahead of me in the queue, it was like being in a busy doctor's surgery. I waited until my interrogator left me, and legged it.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
As far as I could tell, there wasn't any. Most people were milling about talking to people they knew. I had a quick scout around on my way out and couldn't see any.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
3 – On my way out I thought, "Gosh, Islam has always sounded like a good idea." If this was my only Christian experience, I would go to church very rarely. While the service was broadly OK, the info on the website and the baggage that obviously goes with regular attendance would turn me away.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
The service was much better than expected. Apart from the clothes people wore, I could have been in a Victorian ultra-Puritan meeting. I'm so glad they get such big numbers of people who have rejected the genuinely bad stuff in the world and have turned to the light.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
I wish, wish, wish it wasn't the bitter aftertaste left by the grilling I received, but I'm very sorry that it will be.
 
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