Mystery Worshipper: Chris Teean
Church: Holy Trinity
Location: Wistanstow, Shropshire, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 27 September 2009, 11:00am
Entering through a lych-gate, one discovers a stone church with a central square tower surrounded by a grassy graveyard. It was built on a Saxon foundation between 1180 and 1200, with later additions and alterations. Unusual for a small village church, it is cruciform in shape. The nave has many box pews, some bearing small named brass plaques, taking you back to the days when whole households had their own specific place. There are many beautiful stained glass windows. The eye is taken to the altar, a plain communion table with a brass cross, behind which is a wooden panel surmounted by a triptych of three lancet windows depicting Christ crucified. The St Wystan and the St Anne windows in the nave are very fine examples of the work of stained glass artists Mary Agnes Rope and Margaret Rope. There are many stone and brass memorial tablets throughout the church dedicated to families, benefactors and men who fell in the two world wars. Early 17th century wall paintings of biblical texts can be seen in the south transept, and it appears the writer ran out of space because the writing becomes smaller at the bottom!
Parish communion is celebrated every Sunday, and there is a monthly 1662 holy communion as well as a family service. Holy Trinity is part of a group of small churches where there is a rota of other services such as morning or evening prayer held at various locations in the area. There is a local ministry development group, and they have a social calendar of events with a forthcoming soup and pudding lunch and a harvest supper and ceilidh.
Wistanstow is a small village set in the rolling hills of south Shropshire, about 10 miles north of Ludlow. The village takes its name from the Saxon St Wystan, grandson of the king of Mercia, tragically murdered by a jealous cousin. The Saxon suffix "stow" means "enclosed place". There is a small primary school next to the church, a farm opposite, and a string of cottages and houses, together with a pub that has its own brewery. It also has a splendid mock Tudor village hall that was given to the village in 1925 by a local landowner.
The Revd Vic Roberts, a retired clergyman, presided at the service.
What was the name of the service?Parish Communion
How full was the building?
There were 10 people in the congregation, including my companion and myself! I didn't realise there were so few until we went for communion; the congregation filled the one communion rail and that was it. I felt a sense of shock that a church whose history indicated it had once been bursting at the seams was now so empty. I couldn't help wondering how they managed financially. How do they keep the church going, heat it, light it, repair and maintain it, and pay their parish share to the diocese?
Did anyone welcome you personally?
We were greeted effusively by several ladies and made to feel most welcome. We had arrived quite early so they were eager to chat with us and tell us about the church.
Was your pew comfortable?
Not particularly. The hassocks were a little thin and the pew in front was relatively tall, so kneeling was a little like being in a straitjacket. But then you don't come to church expecting armchair comfort!
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The organ was being played quietly and there was some quiet chatting going on at the back. It felt quite peaceful.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning, everyone." The Revd Mr Roberts then drew our attention to the notices on the pew sheet, after which he continued: "We begin our worship with hymn number 14: 'All my hope in God is founded.'"
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Common Worship Holy Communion Order 1, Hymns Old and New, and a pew sheet.
What musical instruments were played?
A traditional pipe organ was played quietly and expertly.
Did anything distract you?
A gentleman behind me had a very loud voice and drowned everyone else and the organ. Perhaps he thought he was making up for absentees. He was certainly enjoying himself, singing with great gusto, and certainly worshipping God but I do wish he could have sung in tune! Sitting three rows from the back, I had expected the church to fill up, with some of the congregation sitting in front of me so that I could follow their example when receiving communion. At my own church we no longer receive from the chalice because of the threat of swine flu! So I was a little bit flustered when it was time to receive communion to find everyone, all eight of them, waiting in the aisle for me to go first! However, I was able to follow a lady who must have sensed my consternation, and we did indeed receive both bread and wine. It wouldn't have looked at all good had I been the first at the rail and had marched back to my pew without receiving the wine!
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was reverent and traditional worship but without any smells or bells. Mr Roberts did not wear a chasuble; rather, he was vested in choir habit with a green scarf over his surplice and cassock. I thought it was a shame they didn't use traditional language – I hope I'm not offending anyone when I say the congregation was the wrong side of 50, so they would have been brought up with the traditional words. I always feel slightly irritated when I have to read the modern version of the creed from the service book instead of reciting the traditional version, which I know off by heart. Keep the modern language, if we must have it, for the family service! There was a slight element of happy-clappy when we sang the final hymn "Oh Lord, all the world belongs to you," the refrain of which was: "We'll be turning the world upside down." I had a sudden vision of Reginald Dixon rising up on his Wurlitzer organ in the Blackpool tower ballroom!
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – Mr Roberts spoke clearly using prepared notes.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The disciples were annoyed that someone who was not one of their group was preaching in the name of Jesus. We should appreciate and encourage those with no apparent faith who often do great Christian work, which is not done for any particular reward. Providing water in the drought stricken areas of the world is vital, so we give thanks for the relief agencies, Christian or otherwise, who try to alleviate suffering. We pray for the kingdom of God to be a society on earth, so it behooves us to do God's will to qualify for this citizenship. Jesus mentions salt; salt gives life its flavour. If we want to indicate someone's worth we say he is the salt of the earth. Salt was once vital in preserving food. Likewise, Christians are bidden to preserve all that is pure and wholesome in societies in which there is often corruption. There are some people who are naturally decent and kind, but most of us have to work hard at it. There are no limits to the power of prayer; our prayers are vital.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
I especially enjoyed the prayers of intercession and the singing of the hymn "Just as I am," which is a particular favourite of mine.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
There was no exchange of peace! Mr Roberts wished us the peace of the Lord and then carried on with the service. I turned to embrace and kiss my companion as I usually do, only to be met with a whispered "They don't do it here."
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
There was no chance of looking lost! Mr Roberts and everyone else engaged us in friendly chatter. They must have realised the Mystery Worshipper was either my companion or myself, but couldn't quite work it out which one of us it was! Anyway, they acted circumspectly and did not grill us! I would have liked to talk to the organist, but he managed to slip out whilst we were in deep conversation with others.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Excellent! The coffee was served from a flask in china mugs and we could help ourselves to milk and sugar. The empties were put into a bowl to be taken away and washed at someone's house. It was well thought out.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 – Although my own preference is for a lot more ceremony with all the smells and bells, it would be out of place here. I think the service was just about right for the location. If I lived locally, I would definitely worship here and would want to be an active part of the team.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Definitely. That last hymn had us almost skipping out of church.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
As we walked back to the car, I felt very sad at the thought of all those people who lived there that couldn't be bothered to get out of bed to support their beautiful little church set in the midst of them. They just don't know what they are missing. So to the inhabitants of Wistanstow and all Christians reading this review: I urge you to visit this lovely church and worship there.