Mystery Worshipper: Wes Charles
Church: St Oswald's
Location: Grasmere, Cumbria, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 16 November 2014, 11:00am
The building is an Anglican and Methodist ecumenical partnership church, and the Methodists apparently have about one service per quarter year. This week was the Methodist service. They are also in covenant though Churches Together in England with the local Roman Catholic Church in Grasmere, Our Lady of the Wayside. The present church is the fourth one to have stood on the site, and the earliest parts of this building date from 1250AD. It is an interesting building, as it is clad in some kind of plaster with no stone visible. Unusual yet not unattractive, it blends in nicely with the village around it. Inside is whitewashed with exposed wooden beams. A wall splits the nave in two with archways between each side. The tower is built with boulders from the riverbed and the walls are four feet thick. Unusually, there is no west door, probably due to the prevailing wet westerly weather. The churchyard contains the graves of the poet William Wordsworth and his family. The organ is, according to Mrs Charles, a nice large one for the size of the building.
I'm afraid I forgot to look at the notice board in the church, as I was distracted by the well stocked book stall in the corner, which sold some interesting books, cards and other souvenirs of the area. According to the notice sheet, there are regular Bible studies and special advent services, along with a Christmas lunch in a neighbouring village. We didn't speak to any of the regulars so I wasn't able to do any more digging.
Grasmere is a beautiful village in the heart of the Lake District in northern England. The area is characterised by lakes, mountains and incredibly picturesque countryside. The village itself is famous for William Wordsworth, one of its former inhabitants, and a world-famous gingerbread shop. According to the preacher, John Biggs, the congregation are very dependent on the time of year in the tourist season, many visitors come in to swell the numbers.
According to the notice sheet, the officiant was John Biggs.
What was the name of the service?Methodist Service.
How full was the building?
The church is a reasonable size, but people spaced themselves out in such a way that it didn't look that empty. I counted twenty-eight in the pews and seven in the choir.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Two people were handing out service sheets and said "Hello" as we came in.
Was your pew comfortable?
It was okay. The back was a little low for my taste but not uncomfortable as such. There was a radiator behind me that was nicely warming at first but a little too hot as the service progressed.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quietly chatty as people greeted each other. Quite low-key.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning. Welcome to St Oswald's, Grasmere. You may have looked at the hymns in advance and regulars may find some words unfamiliar, but the tunes won't be."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Hymns Old & New and a couple of sheets of paper with readings and notices. The Holy Bible, New International Version, was available but was not used in this service.
What musical instruments were played?
An organ, which sounded good.
Did anything distract you?
Yes. Some tourists who struggled with the door during the service popped their heads in, then left when they realised there was a service going on.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
I don't regularly go to Methodist churches, but it seemed quite stiff-upper-lip to me. The preacher was smartly dressed and there was a robed choir and organist. People were quite serious. One of the hymns ("Take this moment, sign and space") began with the minister explaining that the original had been re-written in the hymn books to be more appropriate for infant baptism. As there was no baptism going on, he wanted us to sing the original version, so he explained to us that we had to change the verb in the fourth verse "from the third person singular to the first person singular." It felt like being at a school grammar lesson, but we all seem to have worked it out and everyone sang the same words.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
10 – John Biggs opened with a story about a recent trip to the theatre. I don't know if I was influenced by this, but from then on I saw him as some kind of retired actor. He spoke very nicely and clearly, and was very easy to understand. He was quite serious but with a nice manner and I liked him a lot. It was a fascinating sermon.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
He spoke about the different ways we can interpret Jesus' parables, focusing on the parable of the talents. First he preached the "traditional" interpretation of this, where the master represents God and the suggestion is that we should use the gifts we're given to spread the gospel. Then he preached an alternative interpretation where the master represents an absentee landlord, and the final servant is persecuted for not helping him to reap where he did not sow, representing God's persecuted church. It was really a fascinating sermon that has given me a lot to think about.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
A couple of things fit this category. Before starting, the second reader made an interesting comment to put the reading in context, which I thought was a nice touch. He also read particularly well. The hymns were all good, particularly the last one, which is one of my favourites ("Lord for the years" by Timothy Dudley-Smith). I was also impressed with the music, as the organist played different harmony on the last verse of most of the hymns, which is something I always enjoy.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
I was really struggling throughout the service for something to put in this part. It was a really lovely, uplifting service that I couldn't really find any fault with. I'd weakly settled on "I was too hot by the radiator," but in fact after the service I found it easy to put an answer to this question. See below.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
We stayed in our pew for a few minutes but no one came over to speak to us, so we decided to look a little more conspicuously lost by wandering around. This also drew no reaction from the locals. So we had a browse on the book stall, then went to get a coffee. I failed miserably to strike up a conversation with the lady serving coffee, so Mrs Charles and I moved back into an open space and had a chat. We were quite shocked at the lack of interest from anyone in greeting us. Then another couple walked past and kind of half-smiled at us. We introduced ourselves and realised that they were also looking lost as they were tourists too, and no one else had approached them either. We had a nice conversation with them for about ten minutes. Finally then the preacher came over and joined us. He was friendly, but I was really surprised at the lack of welcome for us (and the other couple) from the congregation. Considering it was such a lovely service with nice music and great preaching, I think they miss the opportunity to encourage new people in if it's like this every week.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
The coffee was nothing special, served in a plastic cup, but the biscuits were nice round chocolate cookies or fingers of shortbread.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
4 – At the end of the final hymn I'd have said a resounding 10, but overall, I'd have to say 3 or 4. Perhaps if we'd been a little more proactive in introducing ourselves to others, we might have had a better experience. But I'd have preferred the church to be more welcoming to visitors.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes and no, for the above reason.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The grammar lesson before the hymn!