Mystery Worshipper: Basil the Great
Church: All Saints
Location: Newmarket, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 13 March 2022, 10:15am
Traditional parish church, dating to the late 1800s. The rear part of the church has been divided from the worship space by the repositioning of the screen, and seems to be for parish and community use (including coffee after the service, with a further section divided from that by a glass screen.
Their website mentions a group called KFC. Wondering what connection Kentucky Fried Chicken had with the church, I enquired further. It’s Kids for Christ – nothing to do with the Colonel at all! Their website says that ‘There is a well equipped crèche room within the main church building for younger children … to play with the toys’ along with ‘a time for parents and carers to meet together to chat while their children play.’ They also have a youth group called Messengers who (again quoting from their website) are ‘experts at raising funds for good causes whilst having a good time together.’ A group called Shine a Light is ‘for people living with dementia and their carers.’ Morning Prayer is said every day, and there are two services each Sunday: an early Holy Communion (Book of Common Prayer) and a later service that alternates among a variety of formats.
Newmarket is a market town about 65 miles north of London. The town is known as the birthplace of horse racing, which dates back as early as 1174. It is said that one-fifth as many horses are stabled at Newmarket as there are people living there! Stables, racetracks, training and health facilities for horses, and other trappings of the sport can be found everywhere. But the only aspect of the town that I experienced was the useful large public car park a minute’s walk away from the church.
The Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich celebrated and preached. The churchwarden gave the notices and ushered the congregation to communion. One member of the congregation read both readings and another led the intercessions. The music was led by five members of a band.
What was the name of the service?Holy Communion.
How full was the building?
I find it hard to estimate, but I would guess about 50-60, with about 10 children. That made it feel about a third full. I was told over coffee that, like so many churches, the congregation is only half of what it was before the pandemic. But I was pleasantly surprised by the age range of the congregation, and there was more ethnic diversity than I had expected from Newmarket.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
I was greeted by someone on duty at the entrance door, which led into the hall space, but there was no particular welcome beyond what a regular might have had. He was helpful when I asked whether most people still wore masks. He explained that it was very much optional and some did, some didn’t. Someone else who also seemed to be on duty was standing by the screen that divided the hall space from the main body of the church, but although I looked a little lost while trying to see if there were any service sheets or books, she was distracted by someone else.
Was your pew comfortable?
It was a fairly standard, not particularly deep, pew – fine to start with, but beginning to cause a little numbness toward the end. A cushion was thoughtfully provided at the far end of the pew, which was a nice touch, but I didn’t feel inclined to take a comfort that most others were not enjoying.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
There was hushed chatter, not covered by any pre-service music; whether that was standard or only for Lent I don’t know. The service started five minutes late, and a couple of times there was the sound of laughter from the vestry. There was a small amount of activity in addition to the congregation arriving, for example a glass of water being taken up to the altar shortly before the service actually started.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
‘Welcome in the name of Christ. I’ll do the welcome from here and then I’ll light the candle for Ukraine.’
What books did the congregation use during the service?
No books were used, as everything was displayed on an overhead screen. The Bible readings were from the New Revised Standard Version.
What musical instruments were played?
The first hymn was accompanied by the organ and some rather tentative drums. For the remaining worship songs, the organist switched to a keyboard and the drummer was joined by two guitars and a violin. The worship band also included singers who were particularly important for the worship songs – I was left unsure how well the congregation knew most of them, as there was a noticeable growth in confidence during most of them.
Did anything distract you?
The biggest distraction was the tension of being a first-time Mystery Worshipper. The Sunday school met in a room at the back of the church, and subdued noise from that during much of the service, I suspect, would distract some; personally I was not troubled by it given how subdued it was, and am just glad to see a good proportion of children in church.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
As the worship band and screen will already have revealed, this was toward the evangelical end of the spectrum, but firmly rooted in Common Worship. The liturgical dress was cassock-alb and stole.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
My timing indicated 18 minutes, which I was astonished by when I checked my watch, as it felt long but really not that long. It made me question if I had misread the start time, but I am fairly confident I didn’t. There was a slightly odd addendum after the intercessions and before the peace to offer some explanation of the curious passage about Abram cutting animals apart, which the bishop had decided not to include in the sermon as it didn’t really fit, but thought it needed some comment.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 — The parish is in interregnum and I happened to go the week the bishop was celebrating and preaching. It was a thoughtful, well-structured and thought-provoking sermon, clearly and engagingly delivered.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Trustworthiness. The bishop began by considering whether we trust ourselves, and how much trustworthiness we show in our Lenten disciplines, when we so often fail to keep the commitments we have made to try to turn closer to Christ. We project our lack of trustworthiness on to God, and think that when our prayers are not answered immediately or things don’t turn out the way we want, that is because God is untrustworthy. In the Old Testament reading, we saw that Abram did not believe God, yet God is trustworthy and did fulfill his promises in his own time. In the gospel, we see Jesus is completely trustworthy: in last week’s reading he withstood temptation, and in today’s he could not be deterred from fulfilling what he came to do. The need to trust in God was related to both Ukraine and the search for a new rector.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
I am not normally a fan of worship songs, but to my surprise I felt a real tingle down my spine at the end of two of them.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The start of the service also felt distinctly odd, with the notices given by the churchwarden immediately after the prayer for Ukraine. It felt like the worship started and stopped again before getting going properly.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I remained in my pew for longer than most, but no one spoke to me, nor when I hesitantly passed out of the church into the hall area where refreshments were served. But I got a warm smile with my tea and was immediately engaged in conversation by a member of the congregation, and another later came to speak to me too.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
As I regard all coffee as horrible, I failed to pay any attention to what was on offer there. But you can’t go far wrong with tea, at least when it is served in a proper mug as this was. I did clock there were biscuits available.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 — There was a real sense of both worship and community, and the most heartfelt intercessions I have heard for a long time deserve a special mention. Despite the fact that this is not really my natural tradition, I would certainly return to this church if I am in the area again over the more obvious church for me in the town.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The revelation of the power of worship songs.