St Mary's, Sawston

St Mary the Virgin, Sawston, Cambridgeshire, England


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Mary the Virgin
Location: Sawston, Cambridgeshire, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 9 March 2014, 9:15am

The building

A typical English village church with a mixture of round Norman and pointed Gothic arches. Flint outside and whitewash inside. It is set in a beautifully kept churchyard, a little bit back from Sawston High Street. This church gives the impression of having been an integral part of the community for centuries – you can see the march of history in the brasses, the war memorial, and in more recent additions like a patchwork curtain or the giant green frog in the children's area at the back.

The church

St Mary's, Sawston, shares a team with St Peter's, Babraham. It looks like a busy church, with three services on a Sunday, and events through the week. The congregation at the service I attended were largely over retirement age, although there were a couple of mothers with young children, and several teenagers drifted in afterwards to attend the 10.45am.

The neighborhood

Sawston is one of several villages dotted around the outskirts of Cambridge, although protected by enough green belt to have retained its own identity. A pleasant, self-contained village, abundantly provided with churches, pubs, schools, banks and other necessities of existence.

The cast

The service was led by the priest in charge, the Revd Alan Partridge (which name must be a sore trial to him!), assisted by lay ministers Rita Ollett and Jose John.

What was the name of the service?

Holy Communion

How full was the building?

Reasonably full. There were empty seats dotted around the place, and the aisles were not occupied, but I would guess there were 40 or 50 in the nave.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

The lady who walked through the door before me turned round to welcome me and introduce herself. Then, when it came to exchanging the peace, she remembered my name and greeted me using it.

Was your pew comfortable?

It was lovely: a wooden chair with padded seat and back. My only complaint would be that, had anyone been sitting next to me, I would have had nowhere to put my hymnbook.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Gently chatty. People were drifting in and talking quietly to their neighbours. Recorded organ music was playing over the sound system.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Good morning, and a very warm welcome to St Mary's on this, the first Sunday in Lent."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The Complete Anglican Hymns Old and New, and a customised booklet entitled something like Holy Communion in Lent – this had the words of the liturgy on the right hand pages, and explanatory notes and illustrations on the left hand pages. There was also a photocopied notice sheet, which included the text of the collect and readings.

What musical instruments were played?

The Revd Alan explained rather ruefully that this would be a "karaoke style service", as no organist was available today. And indeed, the accompaniment to the hymns was recorded organ music. However, we were assured that on other Sundays there would be live organ music. I also noticed a drum kit and keyboard toward the front of church, and it turned out that these would be used in the Open Door service that followed after the one I attended.

Did anything distract you?

This is a beautiful church and there was a lot to look at: the Royal Arms over the door, a copy of Rembrandt's Prodigal Son, and so on. My attention was particularly drawn to the war memorial on the pillar in front of me, which, unusually, featured one name from the Korean War as well as 1914 and 1939. There was a second-hand bookstall, too, and I must confess to having spent some time wondering what treasures might be found on it. Then, during the post-communion prayer, a man came in, sat next to me, and asked me (a) what time it was; (b) whether this was communion; (c) if there would be coffee – a distraction that I think would have distracted anybody!

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

Middle-of-the-road Anglican, with some unexpected elements. For example, the sermon was introduced with a low church off-the-cuff prayer, but later a bell was rung during the eucharistic prayer. I get the impression that this church is, like many rural churches, having to be all things to all people.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

16 minutes.

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

6 – The Revd Alan seemed to be trying to fit a quart into a pint pot! He only had room to look at two of Jesus' three temptations in the detail he obviously wanted to, and broke off abruptly when he got to the end of the second one. Here and elsewhere, he employed a markedly enthusiastic tone that became tiring to listen to after a while (he said at one point that Jesus doesn't float over all this like a supernatural hovercraft and that the devil was trying to persuade Jesus to do a bungee jump).

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Jesus' temptations were related specifically to him and to his identity as the Son of God, but we can learn from them too. Many people in our world try to live by bread alone. And we should look at the way that Jesus uses scripture to defend himself against temptation. If Jesus himself seeks help in scripture, how much more important is it for us?

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

Being greeted by name during the peace, and then, at the communion rail, being addressed by name: "Addie, receive the Body of Christ." These two gestures made me feel very personally welcomed.

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

Well, the notices at the beginning of the service were like Purgatory! They went on for a good ten minutes and seemed largely irrelevant to new visitors. And, while they didn't pain me, some of the metaphors in the sermon seemed a bit tortured.

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

I was complimented on my singing voice, and introduced to lots of people, and invited to take coffee, and generally made to feel very welcome indeed. It didn't take five minutes of hanging around, either – more like thirty seconds remaining in my seat.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

A well known commercial brand of instant, I'm afraid to say (I am always vaguely surprised to come across churches who aren't boycotting this particular brand!), served in green beryl cups and saucers. Very superior fruity cookies, and shortbread fingers.

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

7 – This isn't the kind of church where I feel most at home, theologically speaking, but the welcome was so warm that I'd quite happily come back.

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

Yes, although I did wonder what someone who may be attending church for only the first or second time in their lives would have made of some of the jargon and odd metaphors.

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

Being welcomed by name to God's table.

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