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  1052: St James's, Muswell Hill, London

St James’s, Muswell Hill, London

Mystery Worshipper: Church-hopper.
The church: St James's, Muswell Hill, London.
Denomination: Church of England.
The building: The huge spire would be difficult to miss – it is the most prominent feature of the landscape from every direction and gives a picturesque and almost villagey charm to the neighbourhood. The present church was built at the beginning of the 20th century in "Edwardian perpendicular" style. Inside is unremarkable grey, with a stained glass east window and some other stained glass, but otherwise plain. The area between the church and the church hall has been glazed over, to make a (rather cramped) bookshop and seating area. The décor inside the church is a bit boring. It could be livened up with banners, children's work or even flowers (there was a solitary flower arrangement miles away by the high altar), and the pillars even had attachments designed to hold accessories, but they were tantalisingly empty.
The church: St James's is a large evangelical congregation, which has planted two new congregations, one of which meets in a pub. Every Sunday it has a Book of Common Prayer service at 8am, two all-age morning worship services, plus early and later evening services. With the addition of Turkish church at 1pm and Spanish church at 2.30pm, it runs constantly for most of the day.
The neighbourhood: Muswell Hill is a multi-cultural and multi-faith neighbourhood. It is one of North London's poshest ' or at least, most expensive ' suburbs, with house prices north of '500k. The church is in the main shopping area, which has a local high street feel about it.
The cast: The vicar, Alex Ross, led the service. The preacher was Paul Bendor-Smith, international director of Interserve (a cross-cultural mission fellowship).

What was the name of the service?
Morning worship, 11am.

How full was the building?
It was half full, with about 150 people. This was one of several services that day.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
A labelled welcomer was standing at the door. I smiled and said hello, and he replied with a hello. Inside, a man and a woman were handing out song and notice sheets; she broke off the conversation long enough to greet me. A few minutes after sitting down, I noticed a "welcome point" at the back of the church, but no one seemed to be running it.

Was your pew comfortable?
It was an inoffensive wooden pew. No upholstery, so by the end of the sermon I was squirming a bit, but at least it didn't have a carved back digging in. Later in the service I noticed that the front few rows had comfy-looking chairs. This is a clever ploy to encourage people to sit further forward, but you would have to be quite brave to sit that near the front on your first visit.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Calm and informal. People were chatting normally and the music group was doing its warm-up.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning, everybody, and it's terrific to see you at our 11 o'clock service."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
New International Version Bibles were provided in the pews. The liturgy and songs appeared on a screen, but were also printed on a sheet, so you could choose which to use, which was helpful.

What musical instruments were played?
Keyboard (played extremely well), guitar, bass guitar and violin. There were also two female singers. The music group led the singing well and the sound system was good.

Did anything distract you?
A police siren and noisy buses outside, and one or two people tiptoeing around, trying not to distract people, but the atmosphere was calm and peaceful.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Most of the songs were of the "worship" variety, but were neither happy nor clappy. In fact, the congregational singing was verging on stiff-upper-lip, which was an interesting way of doing this style of music. Admittedly, I was sitting two-thirds of the way back and no one within a 10 foot radius of me seemed to be singing at all. There might have been a bit more exuberance at the front ' I couldn't tell. The final hymn was "Crown him with many crowns" which would have been good with the organ, but it was not used. The vicar, as MC, held the service together well and gave it a good sense of continuity.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
25 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – I didn't mark him down for wearing a tanktop, but did deduct a mark for over-use of "friends", used in the vocative, which only emphasised my feeling of exclusion as a visitor to the church (though a visiting preacher, he apparently knew this congregation reasonably well). The overhead screen announced the sermon as "Sermon Slot".

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
God is doing lots of mission stuff and we can help. The Jerusalem church described in Acts 2 was the original model church, but it kept itself to itself. It only became a missionary church when it was persecuted. Then (according to Acts chapter 8), everyone except the apostles left Jerusalem and started preaching the gospel. God is the mission-strategist and he planned this. There are now unparalleled opportunities for mission, and it is not just for the experts ' it is ordinary people doing ordinary things (he gave examples of how we might do this). God's wish is that all his people engage in his mission.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Towards the end of the service, we had a visit from two schoolgirls who had been selling cakes after the previous service (raising an impressive '187) and still had more to sell to us. They were raising money to educate children overseas and explained eloquently how much they appreciated their own education and wanted to help other children.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The overall feeling was rather glum. We heard about the truly wonderful things that this congregation is doing, yet there was a palpable absence of joy. The people who took the collection in my area looked particularly woebegone. And yet it was Eastertide: I wanted to shout "Alleluia!"

If intercessory prayers were said, what issues were raised?
People involved in conflict; Iraq; servicepeople; tsunami aid workers; Christians involved in the general election; the church worldwide (though not the Pope, who was being inaugurated at that moment); mission workers from St James's working abroad; the local community; St James's groups and activities.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
At first, nothing. Coffee was offered at the back of the church and in the hall, making it difficult to know which to head for. As there were two of us, maybe it was more difficult to see that we were looking lost; in any case, no one seemed to notice, even when we hung around aimlessly near the coffee queue in the hall. We went back into the church and hovered and eventually a man came and asked if we were visiting and we had a nice chat. Finally, full marks to the vicar – as we left through the main church door after our coffee, he detached himself from a conversation, came over and asked if we had met before. He was very welcoming without being pushy. But the lack of welcome from the congregation was particularly ironic after that sermon.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
It was difficult to get to the coffee counter, because it was blocked by two people deep in conversation. Once acquired, the coffee was nice, hot and served in a real cup and saucer. The cake girls had sold out and there didn't seem to be any biscuits.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 – This is obviously a thriving church, so I might give it another chance, but I didn't particularly engage with the worship and didn't feel that there was anything to bring me running back.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Not particularly, but the congregation didn't seem especially glad to be Christians either. The preacher told us about how people are becoming Christians all over the world, but there was nothing in the service to demonstrate why anyone might want to be a Christian. When the eucharist is not celebrated, churches have to work harder to make visitors feel included, because the familiar action of sharing communion with other Christians is missing; as it was, I felt rather like a spectator.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The absence of Easter joy.
 
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