Mystery Worshipper: Jael
Church: Ampthill Baptist
Location: Ampthill, Bedfordshire, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 4 June 2006, 10:45am
The exterior of the church is typical of non-conformist chapels built around a similar period, which for some reason always make me feel slightly grey and gloomy. Still, the outside of the building can't help the way it looks, and as the church says on its website, "Our church is the people in it, not the building!" In contrast to the drab exterior, the interior is light and airy, with solid pine doors, fitted carpet, comfortable chairs instead of pews, and refurbished meetings rooms.
There is clearly a lot going on here, both internally and as part of the wider community of Ampthill town. Indeed, the church is home to Ampthill Flower Festival during June. They also participate in an ecumenical group called Open the Book that goes into schools to take assemblies. The church's website is testimony to many other groups and events they involve themselves in.
I happened upon Ampthill whilst being sent by my office to a training centre in Bedfordshire. It's a small, rather pretty market town with some lovely antique shops, cafes and restaurants in short, a good place to spend an afternoon browsing. From the town's website we learn that Henry III granted a Royal charter for the market in 1219 and renewed it in 1242. Henry VIII was a regular visitor to the castle and its associated hunting grounds. Katherine of Aragon was resident in the castle whilst awaiting the annulment of her marriage to Henry.
The Revd Stephen Plummer, pastor, was unable to take the service that day for reasons I'll expand on momentarily, and so one of the lay pastors filled in. I did write his name down but, sad to say, my handwriting was not improved by my scribbling surreptitious notes on a notebook inside my handbag. The guest preacher was a retired pastor who was father to a member of the congregation; again I didn't get his name.
What was the name of the service?Morning Service.
How full was the building?
Every row was more than half full, probably about 100 in all. There were people of all ages, even from the elusive 20 to 40 age range.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
I arrived a little late, and the service was already in full swing. Following the signs to the entrance at the side, I was saved from flinging open the door onto the stage by a nice young man who emerged from one of the warren of rooms on the other side of the corridor. He very kindly pointed me in the direction of the gallery, observing that I might be able to sneak in a little more unobtrusively if I sat up there.
Was your pew comfortable?
There were no pews. In their place were rows of smartly upholstered and wonderfully soft chairs. And yes, they were comfortable. After years of sitting on woodwormy Victorian pews (and may I just point out here that strips of carpet along the length of the seat do NOT make a difference), it was like sinking onto a cloud.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Let me tell you instead what the pre-service atmosphere was like in my car. As I set out for church, I became stuck behind an elderly gentleman who drove at a maximum speed of 20 miles an hour. Then just as he turned off the road, a tractor pulled out in front of me towing a trailer full of spent animal substance. By the time I reached the dual carriageway, slightly spattered by bits flying off the trailer, I thought I might still be able to make it on time. Taking the exit marked "Ampthill 2 miles," I discovered that the road was closed and had to take a diversion through a series of pretty villages with thatched cottages and duck ponds. I would have enjoyed them had I not been dodging horses in the road as well as families out for a Sunday stroll. Then I spotted a sign reading "Ampthill 6 miles" and began to climb a steep hill, whereupon my car's exhaust began to make the most extraordinary noise. As I finally drove into Ampthill 10 minutes late, my faulty muffler shattering the serenity of their Sunday morning, I felt as if I'd arrived in a VW camper with "Mystery Worshipmobile" on the side in flashing letters.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
I don't know, but I could tell you what they must have been thinking.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The hymn book was Songs of Fellowship, made redundant by the screen on the wall behind the stage. I do enjoy singing without having to mumble into a hymn book, although I expect there are plenty of people who prefer the latter. The Bible was the New International Version and was used by most people to follow the readings.
What musical instruments were played?
Piano, guitar, trumpet, drums and vocalist. A few moments after I arrived we were treated to a wonderful piano and violin recital by two young women named Rachel and Noelle.
Did anything distract you?
There were quite a few distractions. From my superior vantage point in the gallery, I spent several minutes trying to see if a nice young man down in the main section was wearing a wedding ring (he was). And my seat was right next to the door through which the children exited for Sunday school, and I found myself being crashed into and almost rocked off my chair several times in succession by eager children.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
I'm of that conservative Anglican background that considers "Shine Jesus Shine" happy-clappy. At this service I discovered clapping skills I never knew I had. That said, there were also moments of great peace and solemnity.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
5 – I did listen very hard, and I did take notes, but our guest preacher had a habit of veering off on tangents, and interesting as they were I found it hard to keep up.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The sermon was basically about the fact that Pentecost Sunday marks the birthday of the Church, and the ways in which the Holy Spirit is alive and working today.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The reason Pastor Plummer was not there was that a member of the church family was coming to the end of his life, and the pastor was with the gentleman and his family at the local hospice. The lay pastor led the congregation in a time of silence and contemplation, and then prayer. The sense of a loved and valued member of their family being held before God as his life drew to a close was palpable and very moving. I really felt that great strength was being drawn from togetherness. In those few minutes I felt humbled and privileged to be there.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The band began one particular praise chorus at a tempo so lively that the soloist couldn't keep up. She had to stop them and make them start over, slower this time. And during another praise chorus, all the words flashed before us on the big screen at about a hundred miles an hour. I don't know if the operator sat on a button or what, but it was very funny. The expression "really just" was repeated a few times too often in the prayers: "Lord, we'd like you to really just..." and "Lord, we really just want to...", etc.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
This was the moment I was dreading most. At my usual church the collection is opened during coffee, and I had visions of my Mystery Worshipper card being discovered before I could make my getaway. With this in mind I headed downstairs as fast as I could. But then a nice young man (not the same one I had spied from the gallery) said hello, asked me my name, and introduced me to the lady in charge of refreshments.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
I asked if I might have a cup of coffee but was handed tea instead. I'm sure the coffee tasted lovely, but I was too nervous to notice how the tea tasted. After sitting down, I was soon joined by a very nice lady who asked me my name and where I was from. She told me about a healing service scheduled for that evening, and said I might want to rethink my approach to worship. (I've been thinking quite a lot about my approach to worship ever since.) I kept wondering when the doors would slam shut and someone would shout "Silence!" as he unfolded my Mystery Worshipper card. Just then someone really did call for silence and I jumped out of my skin. But it was just an announcement about the youth group. Nevertheless, I was shaken to the point of deciding to take my leave.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 – I found the mix of ages and the sense of family really appealing, but I also found the absence of liturgy very hard to take.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes it did. I think I now realise that I'm an Anglican because I want to be, and not just because that's what I was born into. It helped me see Christianity as a world faith. It also really heartened me that this church is so thriving and happy.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The sense of love and peace as they prayed for their brother. I don't think I will quickly forget that.