Mystery Worshipper: Abbess Hildegarde
Location: Midland, Western Australia
Date of visit: Sunday, 11 September 2005, 9:30am
Quite a plain brick building from the outside, 106 years old. The inside, however, has been done over with lots of carved jarrah (a West Australian timber) and brass, giving it a great deal of interest and character. The solid timber flooring of the sanctuary was especially set off by these ornamentations.
A mix of ages and ethnicity, giving the feeling of being part of a bustling lifestyle. This feeling is enhanced by the nearby growers market held on Sundays, when adjoining streets are closed to traffic. Brass band music wafted in during the quiet communion, although it wasn't intrusive.
Ascension is in the centre of the old Midland town, about 20 kms from Perth, Western Australia. Midland is the first big town for farmers from the wheatbelt and goldminers from the goldfields, 600kms to the east. In days past, Midland had a big railway workshop, now closed and used as a tourist attraction, and has always been a bustling trading place. The church's neighbours are the old town hall, police station, shops and cafes, and some of the old homes.
The Revd John Hewitson and two pastoral assistants. The preacher was a retired priest, the Revd John Pelham, who is now a member of the congregation.
What was the name of the service?Formal Sung Eucharist with incense.
How full was the building?
About 40 or so people, one-third full.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
A handshake and "welcome" from a lady at the door handing out the books. No one else spoke to me apart from at the peace ceremony, but even then I barely received more than a handshake.
Was your pew comfortable?
Standard wooden pew, hard and cold.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quiet, no one really communicating.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Please be seated for a moment." The priest then walked from the sanctuary to the front row of pews and in tears told the congregation of the death of his mother during the week.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Australian Prayer Book and a new Australian hymn book called Together in Song. There were also two Bibles stacked up at each end of each pew.
What musical instruments were played?
A small electronic organ/keyboard.
Did anything distract you?
It was a toss-up between the overhead projector, which had trouble playing catch-up with what was being said by those reading from the books, and the blast of music at the opening of each hymn or sung response. For the first 10 minutes of the service, the projector was way out of sync with the people, so you really had to give up and turn to the book. The music was like a radio turned on with the volume full blast, until it was toned down after the first line or two. Even at communion, in the few moments of quiet between receiving the bread and then the wine, right on cue the organ blasted forth with a few bars before calming down. Ruined the moment.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Middle of the road really, rather mechanical and featureless. I felt very much like an outsider, especially during the after-communion music when people broke into song – nice tune, but I had no idea what anyone was singing. Nothing was announced.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
3 – Father Pelham seemed unsure of himself. Sweet guy, retired priest. But he had a habit of making long silent pauses. I wasn't sure whether he had forgotten what he was going to say or was praying for help. I found myself counting 1000, 2000, 3000 ... during the pauses and got to 10000 several times. At one point he said "I don't want to forget anything" and then turned to his notes and repeated a couple of paragraphs that he had just said.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Salvation, forgiveness – we can forgive with the brain but we also must forgive with the heart or we will not find salvation.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
My heart went out to the priest as he fought the tears in telling of the death of his mother. But then he composed himself and talked for a few minutes of the wonderful celebration of mass during her funeral service. It was a poignant moment in which I realised how this man could feel deeply the loss of his mother but then rejoice in celebrating her life.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
That blast from the crackling amplifier as the music came through louder than ever during communion. I found myself wondering why they needed an amplifier at all.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I waited around like a spare part. Finally a woman asked me if I was new, and just as I was about to answer her someone whisked her away, apparently to attend to an urgent matter. The lady collecting the hymn books was the only one to offer a smile or a good morning. The priest, of course, shook hands with everyone and thanked us for coming. I stood there for about ten minutes and then decided to walk slowly away, thinking I might find a warmer welcome over at the growers market..
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
No tea or coffee – or not that I knew of. Nothing was announced and no one invited me to anything. People seemed to be walking across the road and standing outside the church hall, but they seemed so intent that I thought it must be a parish meeting or something.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
3 – Cold and impersonal. I think it would take a long time to be accepted into this congregation's midst. The priest and the hymn book lady seemed friendly and welcoming, but the others – forget it!
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. I thought of the original parishioners who built the church more than 100 years ago and how they would have struggled in their new adopted country, and here we were all that time later, still worshipping here.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The chaos of the first 10 minutes when the overhead projector was all over the place, but also the wonderful sanctuary with the ornate carving and lots of brassware, lots of candles and the warmth of the picture it all painted.