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  1070: Rossmore Hall Evangelical, Marylebone, London

Rossmore Hall Evangelical, Marylebone, London

Mystery Worshipper: Nick O'Demus.
The church: Rossmore Hall Evangelical, Marylebone, London.
Denomination: Brethren.
The building: Sandwiched between two residential houses on this Georgian street, Rossmore Hall is basically a big square room with a high ceiling. At one end there is a long wooden plaque on the wall, with "Jesus Christ is Lord" painted on it in gold Gothic lettering, and beneath this an upright piano and a Victorian harmonium. The walls are painted light green, with darker green woodwork, and a dark red carpet is on the floor. At the centre is a simple table, and the chairs are squared up on all sides to face it. Fluorescent strip lights hang from the ceiling.
The church community: The Brethren community have been meeting here for many years. A Portuguese congregation meets in the hall in the afternoons, but do not seem to have much to do with the Brethren.
The neighbourhood: The church is in north Marylebone, with pleasant, wide streets and 18th-century houses. As I walked along Rossmore Road, I could see the minaret of the London Central Mosque at Regent's Park above the rooftops. A few hundred yards south is Marylebone Station.
The cast: Strictly speaking, the service is not led by anyone, but members of the congregation stand up and speak as they are moved by the Holy Spirit – but only if they are male. Having said that, Brother Lawrence seemed to take the lead most of the time, launching the hymn singing, praying a long prayer and preaching. Brother Weaver led the communion.

What was the name of the service?
The Breaking of Bread, 11.00am.

How full was the building?
There were just six of us, in a hall with 38 chairs. Later on, I was told: "Sometimes there are just three of us, sometimes 14!"

Did anyone welcome you personally?
When I walked in off the street, there were just two gentlemen sitting in the hall. Brother Weaver, a tall man in an imposing black suit and blue knit waistcoat, and with impressive mutton-chop sideburns, immediately rose and welcomed me warmly. Almost everything I said he greeted with "Praise the Lord!" "Where are you from?" he asked. "Ealing," I said. "Ealing? Praise the Lord!" I felt welcome and at home immediately.

Was your pew comfortable?
We were in upright wooden chairs with a book-holder at the back of each chair. I didn't notice mine, so it can't have been uncomfortable.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quiet. Apart from the rustling of the pages of black Bibles (everyone had brought their own, except me, tut!), and the sound of children walking past in the sunny street outside, there was silence until about 5 past 11.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
Brother Lawrence, who was sitting in the chair directly in front of me, suddenly stood up and said, "May we commence our service with hymn number 135." He then read out the words of the entire hymn before we sang it.

What books did the congregation use during the service?
The Little Flock Hymn Book, a 19th century production, with hymns selected by J.N. Darby himself, one of the leading lights in the Brethren movement. I was also handed a small King James Version Bible.

What musical instruments were played?
None; we sang the hymns without accompaniment. Brother Lawrence made sure he started singing before anyone else, so he could set the pitch, which in one hymn was eye-wateringly high. Apparently, the congregation sometimes sings using the piano or harmonium.

Did anything distract you?
I confess that I did rather sinfully note down the frequent clichés that appeared in the prayers, sermon and notices. "I was heading for a lost eternity... we pray for travelling mercies... we are a peculiar people... we kneel before the throne of grace... the Devil is the father of lies..." The Brethren movement began with the admirable aim of recovering the faith as it was in the first century, but judging by this service, it's now locked in the faith of the 19th century. I listened hard for a fresh thought, or some connection with life as it's lived today, but it just didn't happen.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was spare and serious, a "thees" and "thous" service. We sat in silence for quite a lot of the time. We had three hymns and two long prayers (one of them lasted 12 minutes). We had a sermon and we remembered the death of Jesus by eating bread and drinking wine. The most lively part of the service was when two women arrived late, bringing our numbers up to six, and gave me friendly, twinkling smiles. Neither of them was wearing a head-covering, which was a pleasant surprise.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
17 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
3 – I give our preacher 3 for energy and commitment, as he addressed the mostly empty chairs around him, speaking without notes in a sing-song voice that was almost like a chant. Since I was directly behind him, I noticed his leg trembling as he spoke. However, he didn't seem to be making eye contact with the few people around him, which made his message rather detached. This was a sermon full of Bible quotations and phrases, but empty of any attempt to apply the Bible to our lives today.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
We started with a reading in the book of Habakkuk, where the prophet talks about receiving a vision from God: "it will surely come, it will not tarry". Our preacher told us that the Spirit of God is always moving, and that "where there is no vision, the people perish". We may not have seen Christ rise from the dead with our naked eyes, but God has given us a vision. "If God gives you a vision of the things concerning himself," he told us, "he gives you the best".

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
They included me in sharing the bread and wine of communion. I hadn't expected that, since in many Brethren assemblies a stranger would be looked on with suspicion, so it was very heart-warming when I was offered the bread and then the wine.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Walking into this church off the street, not knowing what I would find inside, or what welcome I would get.

If intercessory prayers were said, what issues were raised?
The intercessory prayer lasted 12 minutes, and although it was mostly in-house, we also remembered those who were being persecuted for their faith in Zimbabwe, and we prayed that evil regimes would either be saved or overthrown. I did a double-take when the person leading the prayers said that "the angels are looking down in consternation and amazement" at what we were doing – it seemed a bit melodramatic to suggest that angels were gobsmacked by six people sitting in a Gospel Hall.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I was immediately invited to have some coffee or tea at the hatch into the kitchen, where everyone had gathered. They're a very friendly bunch, and we talked about theology, Brazil (two members of the congregation are from Brazil), childbirth and why the women weren't allowed to speak in the service.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
We had to have black coffee or tea because the milk was off and floated in little lumps on the surface.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
2 – Once upon a time, this sort of worship was revolutionary. Now it has become the sort of dead tradition which the Brethren movement was meant to overthrow. It feels like a movement that has betrayed itself.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, because they shared their bread and wine with me.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
Hearing the preacher announce he was speaking from the book of Habakkuk, and noticing how no one batted an eye as they turned quite easily to this obscure Old Testament book in their black Bibles.
 
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