Mystery Worshipper: Hildegard of Bingley
Church: Baptist Church
Location: Chelmsford, Essex, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 13 August 2017, 11:00am
The present church building dates from 1848 and is Grade II listed. Externally it is a typical piece of non-conformist chapel architecture of its period rather dull and forbidding by modern church architectural standards. As Hildegard entered, she was struck by the high wooden pulpit at the rear and reflected that anything was going to sound like the word of God emanating from there. But sadly, it was not to be. The service was conducted in entirety from a desk at a lower level. Hildegard gathered that some pews toward the rear had been removed to make accessibility easier, but she didn't notice any other special provision for disabled persons, such as a loop system.
Hildegard had expected a congregation predominantly aged 70+ and was surprised to find that most of them were well under 50, with at least two teenagers and two young children (the pastor's grandchildren, as was later revealed). Indeed, there is a Bible Explorers Club specifically for young children, and a Pathway to Life Bible group for older children. There is also a young people's social group called Gateway. For adults there is Bible study and a prayer meeting on Wednesday evenings. They regularly host guest speakers from a variety of evangelical groups. On Sundays there is a service in the morning and one in the evening.
Chelmsford is the county town of Essex and one of the UK's newest cities. It has a population of roughly 120,000, many of whom commute to London for work. The city prides itself on being the birthplace of radio, Marconi having established his first wireless factory there. The cathedral is small as cathedrals go, but well worth a visit, and many other denominations have places of worship locally. There are also some fine parks nearby. The River Thames flowed through here on its way to the North Sea during the Pleistocene ice age, so there are various gravel deposits that have been worked.
The pastor, David Cassells, presided and preached throughout the service.
What was the name of the service?Sunday Service (as far as Hildegard could tell, there being no newsletter or other indication of its name).
How full was the building?
On the day in question there were 21 people present in a building that could accommodate ten times that number at least. The pastor explained that several of the usual congregation were on their summer holidays.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
There was a gentleman at the door who welcomed Hildegard and asked if she had ever been there before. The answer being "no," she was assured that she was very welcome. She had no sooner sat down than the pastor came and introduced himself, again assuring her of a welcome and any other way in which they could be of any help. No one sat next to her and there was no sign of peace during the service.
Was your pew comfortable?
There were old wooden pews with rather thin runners to sit on, but they were not uncomfortable.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The congregation assembled quietly, the musicians busying themselves with their preparations. Hildegard followed the displays on the screen, which gave details of activities during the week, such as Bible study groups, Wednesday evening prayer meeting, and an outreach to a local care home.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
The pastor said, "Good morning and welcome" and noted that several of the usual congregation were away at the time.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The Psalms of David in Metre and Gospel Hymns, both of which appeared to be redundant, as the words of what the congregation sang were displayed on screen; but the Bibles (King James Version) were busily employed during the preaching, the references also being displayed on screen.
What musical instruments were played?
Some sort of organ but no pipes, a piano, and violin.
Did anything distract you?
The headgear of some of the ladies was a distraction. Hildegard noted that some wore black berets and some others sported caps, which they put on as they settled into their seats. She assumed that they wore them in deference to 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 (Paul's dissertation on hats and haircuts). She avidly awaited at least some of the wearers uttering prophecy during the service, but sadly, again, she was disappointed.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Exactly what Hildegard would have expected in a non-conformist church: prayer, hymns and preaching, and a lot of the latter.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
Not a simple answer. There were two readings, from Luke and John, together with (respectively) four and five minute expositions, interspersed with intercessory prayers and hymns. But the main sermon lasted for 40 minutes.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – The pastor was excellently clear in his exegesis of the texts he was using. Hildegard regarded it as well thought out, well crafted preaching, delivered with passion – but (thanks be to God!) without some of the histrionics often associated with such efforts. On first hearing the pastor's Northern Irish accent, she had a great fear of this (a la Ian Paisley) but it was unjustified.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The theme of recent sermons has been "The Prayer Jesus Prayed." Pastor Cassells explained, with particular reference to John's gospel, how Jesus revealed the Father, that to have seen Jesus is to have seen the Father. The only way to God is through Jesus. (The pastor was rather ambivalent on the implications of this for non-believers.) The doctrine of the Trinity is hard to understand, but it is biblical and, therefore, must be believed. Jesus' disciples were the Father's gift to him for all eternity. We have been bought by Jesus, by grace in the Spirit. Our beliefs must bear fruit in our lives.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Good to hear a competent preacher.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The congregation were exclusively white. Hildegard has a distinct preference for mixed race worship, but maybe this small group reflects local interest in its particular form of Christianity. She doubts whether there is any intention to exclude or discourage others from joining this community.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Hildegard didn't get a chance to hang around, as the pastor came straight down from the desk to talk to her. They had a conversation lasting 20 to 25 minutes about various aspects of Baptist and Catholic beliefs and practice. In response to an enquiry, the pastor said that they celebrated the Lord's Supper once a month but that he would have liked it every week.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Hildegard didn't think there was any on offer, or if there was, she didn't get invited to partake. But anyway, she was too occupied with discussing matters with the pastor to give it much thought.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
1 – As good as this service was, of its kind, Hildegard would need to be on a desert island with no other options, in order to be lured away from her preference for sung mass on a Sunday and low mass on weekdays.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. There was an obvious sincerity and commitment amongst this small group.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
Hildegard will remember her disappointment at the ladies with their berets and caps but no prophesying.