St Barnabas, Crewe

St Barnabas, Crewe, Cheshire, England


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Barnabas
Location: Crewe, Cheshire, England
Date of visit: Wednesday, 11 June 2014, 7:30pm

The building

St Barnabas put me in mind of a mission church: plain red brick Victorian the "school of gymnasium" architecture, with a clap-boarded spire on western end. A school room to match, now converted to sheltered accommodation. Plain wooden door, painted green, leads onto terra cotta tiled porch floor. Bench, notice board, and welcoming floral arrangement. The church entrance porch leads to the main body of the building and into the baptistery area. Red unglazed brick interior, panelled with dark oak throughout. Tapestries, statues, candles, gilded everything. Enough flowers to stage a flower show. Communion vessels (water and wine, ciborium with hosts, very shiny silver) on table at the back. Clean and well ordered throughout and in excellent repair.

The church

I would say St Barnabas stands at the very heart of this community. Many of the shop windows and terraced houses displayed St Barnabas Day posters for the patronal. Not sure what events or groups they have going on, however (and they don't have their own website so I couldn't check there). Three adult scout/sea scout leaders arrived at the offertory; perhaps they had just finished a scout session somewhere.

The neighborhood

Crewe, in west-central England, was once at the centre of the British Railways network; it is still an important railway town. Bombardier Transportation, one of the world's largest rail-equipment manufacturing companies, maintains a locomotive overhaul and repair works there. Rolls-Royce automobiles were made in Crewe until 2002; Bentleys are still made there. The town features well-built housing estates in leafy tree-lined roads that rub shoulders with older terraced housing and shops along the high street. There is a large building programme under way of modern town houses and apartment blocks, built on former railway land. St Barnabas Church is set on the side of a fairly busy main road, surrounded by grass, neatly kept, with several trees. Pretty setting despite the main road.

The cast

The Revd Ralph Dover Powell, parish priest. The Revd Darren Smith, secretary of the Additional Curates Society (ACS), an organisation that encourages vocations to the priesthood and provides funding for priests in poorer parishes, was the preacher.

What was the name of the service?

Solemn Mass, Procession and Benediction. The service was preceded by an organ recital at 7.00pm given by John Axor, organist of St Barnabas.

How full was the building?

Mainly full. Most of the seats were taken, just a few rows left in the side aisles. If the congregation were anything to go by, many local people had responded and turned up for the occasion: mums and dads, babes in arms (one or two having a good squawk), teenagers (yes, really!) and regular congregation. Perhaps they were all regulars because the children seemed at home there and accustomed to what was going on.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

No one welcomed me, but a sidesperson gave me the service sheet and mass book with a "This is what we're using now but the service isn't in it." "Great; lovely; thank you," I replied. An old gent gave me a brief nod as he sat down.

Was your pew comfortable?


How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

When I arrived, the church was locked. I had arrived in good time, having taken the train to Crewe in keeping with the town's railway heritage. However, I was not prepared for having to hoof it all the way from the station, a couple of miles at least; there were no buses. On and on I walked, dodging the cyclists and motorists who shouted and gestured at me as they shot past! I asked two lads in Motörhead t-shirts carrying boxes of Carling (bad choice of lager) if I was right for West Street, please. "This is all West Street. D'ya fancy a beer, luv?" I declined. Anyway, when I finally arrived at St Barnabas, I hung around a bit until the doors opened. I could hear someone inside – it was Father Powell saying the office. (Unfortunately, singing isn't one of Father's finer attributes.) That dragged on a bit, and I wondered when the organist was going to begin his recital. But in due course John Axor took his place at the console and began a selection of unidentifiable tunes, not very well, and at a fine lick. People came in shouting, falling over their rollators (walkers to our American friends), saying hello to their friends, and then realising that something was going on and feeling embarrassed. The Lord Mayor and Lord Lieutenant arrived amid the general melee, and Father told us to stand up to greet them. Then we all sat down again. This was while the organist was still playing!

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Printed hymn sheet for St Barnabas Day, and copies of their own parish mass book based loosely on BCP and the old Series 2. The New Jerusalem Bible was also available.

What musical instruments were played?

Pipe organ. The two-manual instrument was built in 1887 by Wadsworth and Co. of Manchester, and extended in 1957 by J W Walker & Sons Ltd of Brandon, Suffolk.

Did anything distract you?

As I entered, I saw a lady on the porch reading the notices who was a dead ringer for my sister. Inside, I was so busy looking round and making notes that I wasn't concentrating on the job in hand. There was so much to look at: statues, all the flowers, stations, "stuff" all these were distracting in themselves. At communion, a lady came walking up the nave with an enormous lilac chain store carrier bag full of washing from the launderette. True! She just walked up the aisle and sat down with it.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

Prayer Book Catholic: robed choir of about 15 – ladies in green cassocks, men in black cassocks and white surplices. Priest, deacon, subdeacon, two acolytes, crucifer, thurifer. Three men in the chancel attired in cassock and surplice with crimson silk shoulder capes. Assorted priests from around the diocese. The congregation sang lustily if slightly off key at times, but the organist was generally ahead of us and usually beat us to the finish.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

19 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

4 – Sorry to say it was yawn making. Father Darren Smith has a style called "reading from notes in a boring voice." St Barnabas, companion of St Paul, cousin of St Mark, founder of the Cypriot Orthodox Church, and regarded by some as the author of the letter to the Hebrews, was a highly successful evangelist, and so I suppose it was fitting that Father Darren's sermon on St Barnabas' feast day be on the topic of vocations to the priesthood. He augmented his talk with a PowerPoint and literature available after mass concerning the work of the ACS.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

He kicked off by telling us that he had been done for speeding recently and sent on a speed awareness course. He said that it was a bit like an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting: "My name is Darren and I'm a priest." "You don't look like a priest," someone said. But what does a priest look like? "You are not good enough to be a priest," his mother had told him. But who is good enough? We need men who are, first and foremost, prepared to abandon themselves to the Church. Is God calling you? The Church needs you! We need more priests. In a nutshell: become a priest!

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The late evening sunshine dappling the wall by the Lady altar and statue.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

Some very flat singing and lousy acoustics.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

A man (sidesman, perhaps) said, "Are you staying? There's some food afterwards." But I had already spotted "Refreshments in hall after the service" on the advertising bills.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

A plenteous buffet awaited us in the parish hall: sandwiches, cakes, nibbles, etc. I was ready for something to eat and a little drinky-winky to set me up for the long walk back to the station.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

8 – I could soon get into the swing of things at St Barnabas. They had pushed the boat out for St Barney: spotlessly clean church and a Chelsea flower show indoors. And the runaway train of an organ accompaniment.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

Yes, because at times I forget I am one.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

The giant floral arrangement in the sanctuary in red and yellow chrysanthemums and carnations.

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