St James, Swimbridge (Exterior)

St James, Swimbridge, Devon, England


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St James
Location: Swimbridge, Devon, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 31 August 2014, 10:00am

The building

This is a truly beautiful church. The oldest part is the tower and spire, which date from 1310, with the nave and chancel dating from 1400 and the transept from 1480. A church building has stood on the present site for over a thousand years, yet this has only been the parish church since 1866. There is no information on what kind of church it was before then. The font is a lead-lined basin that is one of the oldest in England. It is particularly interesting as it is enclosed in a large, ornately-carved oak casing. It is thought that the font canopy was once a pulpit sounding board. The pulpit itself is of stone and dates from 1490. Most impressive, though, is the 44-foot-wide rood screen covered in incredibly intricate carving on its entire length. From the outside, the church looks quite pretty, but upon entering it is breathtaking in its beauty and well worth a visit just to see the quality of the craftsmanship.

The church

As it was the fifth Sunday in the month, this was the benefice service where people from four local churches come together. On the third Sunday of the month they have a family service, and one of the church wardens goes into the local primary school from time to time to talk to the children. There is also a lunch club for locals to meet and eat with each other. A former vicar of the church was the Revd John Russell, who was famous for having bred the Jack Russell terrier in the 1800s. In total he served the parish for 48 years.

The neighborhood

Swimbridge is a little village in Devon. Apparently, the village is a bit of a dormitory village for the nearby towns of Barnstaple and South Molton. The area was made famous by the 1970s film (based on a 1920s book), Tarka the Otter. The village itself isn't that touristy, but is within easy reach of the beaches of the North Devon coast.

The cast

The Revd Shaun O'Rourke, vicar, who looks after four churches in the benefice. On other weeks they also have a retired priest who helps out, as well as a lay-reader.

What was the name of the service?

Benefice Service.

How full was the building?

About a third full, but people were conveniently spaced out to give it a feeling of a good number. There were 45-50 people, including the vicar, organist and choir.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Yes, there were two people just inside the door welcoming people. We were asked if we wanted hymn books with printed music or just the words. I said I'd have whatever they wanted to give me, which caused some confusion for a little while. I ended up with a hymn book without music, but a really helpful sheet of paper containing the printed music for the setting of the Gloria, Sanctus, etc.

Was your pew comfortable?

No. I don't usually notice much about the comfort of church seating, but I noticed that the pew was particularly uncomfortable, with a ridge half-way up my back. Perhaps it was just me though, as others in our party found them acceptable.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Quite lively, with many of the locals moving around to greet each others. It really felt like a welcome opportunity to meet neighbours.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Good morning, everyone, and welcome as we gather on this musical morning to worship God." Perhaps this was in reference to the choir being present, and I wonder whether they don't sing every week. The vicar then proceeded to give some notices, to pray for peace in the world, and then straight into sharing the peace with everyone. I found this odd, as I'm used to having this in the middle of the service, but also it's a nice idea to greet people before the service starts.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Anglican Hymns Old & New and an order of service called Holy Communion Order 1 In Traditional Language. This was quite interesting because the language used was old-fashioned (thee, thy, thou) yet it wasn't BCP, as the copyright notice at the back said it was from Common Worship. I wondered why they didn't just use the BCP. Also, they chose to use a service in traditional language, yet a hymnal that rewords hymns to make them gender-inclusive (e.g., "They who would valiant be").

What musical instruments were played?

An organ. It was a nice-looking organ but, due to the geography of the church, it was tucked into a corner to the left of the altar, which meant that the sound got a little lost. It sounded nice, but trying to sing along with it was a little difficult and we had to sing more quietly that we wanted in order to hear the music.

Did anything distract you?

The food (see below for more detail) was on show just in front of our pew for the whole service. It was a challenge not to focus on the forthcoming pork pies rather than the service. Mrs Charles was more distracted by the large cakes just next door. I spend part of the service wondering what it was all for.

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

On the Anglo-Catholic side of centre. There was a robed choir and a procession around the church, as well as having an anthem sung by the choir between the readings, yet the vicar had a very personable style and a relaxed northern accent.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

9 minutes.

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

8 – The Revd Shaun O'Rourke had a very relaxed style that really appealed to me. He was a bit of a "pacer" and was occasionally talking with his back to us, which made the presentation-skills-teacher in me wince, but the sermon was lively, engaging and humorous.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The sermon was based on the reading from Romans where, among other things, Paul tells us to love our enemy. He spoke about the events in Iraq and Syria and suggested that if more people would follow Paul's advice, the world would be a much nicer place. He closed by telling us about the importance of prayer in such situations and how we need to be grateful that God has given us revelations through the Bible of how to live together.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

Although I enjoyed the whole service, it was the friendliness of the congregation that was my "heaven" moment. In the afternoon, the village was putting on a charity cream tea in the village garden, and we saw a number of people from the church there a few hours after the service, who came to say hello again and ask how we'd enjoyed the service (maybe they'd found my calling card by that point). We found the whole congregation to be very welcoming and warm towards us.

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

A very frustrating lack of information! I bought a copy of their church history booklet to help me write this report. It tells me about this beautiful old building and its history, then states that it has only been the parish church since 1866, yet doesn't say what its status was before that. Even a 20 minute search online yielded no information. I found this very frustrating and hope that someone from the church reads this report and enlightens me by leaving a comment!

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

There were four of us and we stayed in our pew for a few minutes admiring the beautiful building. I wondered whether anyone was going to come over or whether I'd have to look lost a little more conspicuously. However, after a few minutes a couple of people came over and were incredibly welcoming. A lady told us how welcome she was made to feel at an American church once, and that she sees it as her job to welcome people here. We had a long chat with her and a couple of others before we went to get our coffee. We then spoke to many people, one of whom invited Mrs Charles to have a go on the organ, which she was very happy about.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Truly amazing! It wasn't so much after-service coffee as an after-service feast! I wondered whether it was someone's birthday or something, but it wasn't they seem to push the boat out a little for the benefice service. There was tea and coffee, as well as a number of huge cakes, sausage rolls, pork pies – absolutely unbelievable! Apparently at their regular service they just have biscuits, so we obviously got lucky with the week we chose.

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

9 – If we lived in Swimbridge I would be delighted to make this church my regular. It would certainly save me having to cook lunch on the fifth Sunday of the month!

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

Yes, the whole experience was an uplifting combination of good sermon, friendly congregation, unexpected food, and a couple of hours participating in village life.

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

Coffee and pork pies after a village church service.

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