Mystery Worshipper: August in Hippo
Church: St Matthew's
Location: Bristol, England
Date of visit: Thursday, 3 December 2009, 5:15pm
This late Georgian Gothic building was consecrated in 1835 and described by an observer as "cold, gaunt and most unlovely." But whatever your architectural tastes, its crenellated tower is one of the most recognisable features of Bristol’s skyline. The building feels very bizarre when you first enter it. Where you would expect the ground floor to be are stairs leading up to what would have been the gallery level, which is now the worship space. This has resulted in the windows being truncated (so looking like they are incorrectly proportioned). However, as I saw after the service, this means there is a large space underneath used apparently for children's church and other gatherings.
St Nathanael’s parish was amalgamated with St Matthew's in 1984. They run courses and groups for many parts of the community, including a Messy Church. For today's service, the congregation mainly consisted of students and staff from Trinity College, Bristol, clergy from churches where these students are placed, plus some of their congregation members.
The church is in Kingsdown, an area of Bristol I do not know, but it appeared to be a relatively middle class residential area.
The celebrant was the Revd Mat Ineson, priest in charge, assisted by an unnamed student. Preaching was the Rt Revd Lee Rayfield, Bishop Suffragan of Swindon. Leading the commissioning was Andrew Lucas, executive director of Trinity College, Bristol.
What was the name of the service?Commissioning Service for Context Students at Trinity College with Holy Communion
How full was the building?
About half full.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
I was welcomed with a cheery hello and a handshake at the door. As I sat down, a man who I thought looked slightly out of place introduced himself. He turned out to be the pastor of a non-denominational church which has just started working with the Anglican Trinity Theological College. Unlike the other clergy, he was not sporting a clerical collar, but a smart black suit. Despite looking not completely at ease in this Established Church setting, he was very friendly.
Was your pew comfortable?
A very comfortable grey padded chair. In a cunning move, St Matthew's has the comfy padded seats in the front and middle, and wooden pews on the outside. So, unusual for a Church of England service, most of the people were relatively near the action.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
It was reasonably quiet with a small amount of chatter as people said hello to friends whom they might not normally expect to see at church.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good evening and welcome to St Matthew's for this service of commissioning."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
No books were used – everything, including the readings, was projected onto a white screen in slightly garish colours.
What musical instruments were played?
A grand piano, guitar, bass guitar and drum kit.
Did anything distract you?
The odd arrangement of the building was puzzling; it confused me throughout the service. Bishop Lee also struck me as enthusiastic and cheerful, attributes I have not often (if ever) observed before in the episcopacy. This led me to wondering how he pulled it off.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Happy clappy, but in a reasonably controlled Anglican kind of way. The songs sung were neither cutting edge contemporary worship nor ancient. The student leader did encourage us to call out our praises to God at one point, but this was not the feel of the service as a whole.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 – Bishop Lee walked around the carpeted area in front of the altar. He had a relaxed but sincere and engaging approach and was very easy to listen to. I have no doubt that in the main this was one of his stock sermons, but he made it feel like it really applied to the congregation on the evening.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
That we need to re-imagine mission. This doesn't mean doing something new, but doing the same things in a different way. He loosely referred to Luke 10:1-12 (Jesus commissions the 72 and instructs them on how to behave) and reminded us of how the Star Trek image had been re-imagined from film to film (the same characters and ship used differently). He also mentioned how the energy drink Lucozade had moved its brand from being a tonic for ill people to a healthy life style drink for everyone. All of this mirrors what the church needs to do.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The choir sang a beautiful piece about service during communion. I was very pleasantly surprised at the quality of the singing, something that rarely appeals to me.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
There was some confusion over when those being commissioned should be given their commissioning certificates. This led to various announcements about when this would happen. Eventually the bishop just gave them out at the end.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
A buffet meal was advertised, so I hurried down to grab some of that. I was greeted by various acquaintances who had also come to support those being commissioned.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
No coffee, but reasonable quality squash (fruit drink). I don't think it was Lucozade, though.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
6 – I appreciated the blend of Anglicanism and a lively and friendly style of worship. But I do fear that such a safe middle ground might seem a bit too nice!
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
Bishop's Lee's illustration using Lucozade.