Mystery Worshipper: Southern Stealth
Church: Christ Church
Location: Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 27 November 2005, 10:30am
Big old traditional looking stone church with a tall belltower. According to the website, construction of the building commenced in the late 1830s. I'm a sucker for churches that feature good architecture, high ceilings, and small doors in walls that look like they lead up secret spiral staircases to mysterious places. This building looks like it has some stories to tell in that department.
The building appears to have predated the housing stock in the neighbourhood ("Let's build a church and the people will come to us...?"). But times have moved on since then, and Christ Church seems to have grown along with the neighbourhood, offering youth programs, musical gatherings, home groups, coffee mornings, Alpha sessions, and good pastoral and prayer ministry.
The church is located near what appears to be central Cheltenham (is this a sleepy town or was it just a Sunday?) and within walking distance of home for many people, which is a good thing in my opinion.
The Rev. Linda Flewker-Barker, curate, led the proceedings. A visiting preacher, the Rev. Philbert Kalisa, gave the address and children's talk.
What was the name of the service?Morning Worship
How full was the building?
It looked like there were several hundred seats, and all were reasonably full.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
I was greeted and handed a service sheet. People smiled at me during the passing of the peace, but there wasn't much conversation.
Was your pew comfortable?
Sort of run-of-the-mill C of E straight pews with thin regulation cushions. Some of the pews were rather Presbyterian-style booth-like, and I expect you had to be at least aged 110 or book early to get one of those.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
General chatter of people greeting one another.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning and welcome to Christ Church, Cheltenham."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
A standard issue hymnal plus Songs of Fellowship. There was also a pink service sheet (do churches get a good deal on pink A4?) with liturgical responses, hymn numbers, etc.
What musical instruments were played?
Organ and piano. I had heard that the choir is quite good, but I don't think they were in attendance.
Did anything distract you?
Poor quality audio from the sound system – but this smartly improved as things went on. A young child in the pew behind me kept gently punching me in the back – strange, but I think his parents may actually have been egging him on!
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Their website indicates a broad range of liturgical and musical styles, but I would categorise today's service as slow and steady hymn book sort of stuff. It fit comfortably into my fairly broad range of church experience. I think I could hear a few people singing. Activity bags had been provided for the children, and a service sheet notice made it clear they were only for use in church. I wondered if they would be collected and graded.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – I found the sermon to be quite inspiring. The visiting preacher gave a children's talk before he began the sermon proper.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The preacher spoke of his missionary experiences amid the violence in Rwanda. Peace with God makes all things possible. Issues of forgiveness, reconciliation and justice seem to take on renewed vitality and poignancy when their setting is one of such violence.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
We found a parking space right out front, just like they always do in the movies. A clear case of "Dear Lord, please provide a parking space... never mind, we've found one!" During the children's sermon there was a youngster I couldn't see who had one mean cackle. I wished I could tape it and use it as a laugh track for some other sermons I've heard.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
No tea was on offer afterwards. Coffee, yes...but no tea!
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I was there with some friends, and we conspired to have them all disappear so I would look lost and alone. But these church people are cunning – they must have caught on to what we were up to, as no one came up to me and said anything! I had a look at the material on display, and now I know that Revolve, that version of the Bible done up as a fashion magazine, is not just a myth but really exists – scary!
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
I'm not a coffee drinker, but I missed my tea. How un-English! I hope this was just an anomaly.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
2 – It's not in my area, but perhaps I'd visit from time to time should I be passing through.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Hmmm... I think so.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The child with the cackle.