New Church, Bristol

New Church, Cranbrook Road, Bristol, England


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: New Church
Location: Cranbrook Road, Bristol, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 27 October 2013, 3:00pm

The building

This is a small, simple Gothic church with lancet windows. It was erected in 1899, replacing a tin church in the centre of Bristol that was swallowed up by the development of the inner-city hospital. The interior contains an altar, reredos and organ, and rooms at the rear.

The church

The New Church has been in Bristol since 1792 and was originally sited in the centre of the city. It is part of a small denomination that had 150 churches at the height of the Victorian era but is now reduced to 15 and a handful of ministers. The denomination was founded by Anglican and Methodist clergy (mostly from Manchester) who had read and been influenced by Emmanuel Swedenborg's writings. However, this small denomination is very different from the American denomination with a similar name, as the English ones are Trinitarian and don't regard Swedenborg's writings as scripture. Bristol's is one of the earliest of a cluster of congregations founded in the 1790s. Today's service marked the closing of New Church.

The neighborhood

Cranbrook Road is regarded as the easternmost boundary of Bristol's affluent Victorian suburb known as Redland. Its name may be a reference to the reddish soil in the area, or it may have been derived from an Old English word meaning "cleared land." Redland once had three active churches, all of which have now closed. The area around the church is very overgrown and there is a stream at the back of the church. The undergrowth had grown up all over the lancets!

The cast

The Revd Clifford Curry presided and preached.

What was the name of the service?

Final service of the Bristol New Church Society (closing service).

How full was the building?

The church was full. Isn't that always the way with final services? Usually there are only four or five people in attendance.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Yes, both the minister and secretary of the society.

Was your pew comfortable?

It was a Victorian church chair, not designed for comfort!

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

There was a meeting of the church officials before the service to wind up the affairs of the church. There was some chatter amongst the congregation. Some members of the Celtic Catholic church were present and chatting. The service opened with some organ music on CD, which appeared to be designed to stir emotions. The old pipe organ, silent for many years, was not working.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"To Jesus Christ be all power and dominion – who is the first, the last, and is to come."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The New Church prayer book and hymn book.

What musical instruments were played?

Piped CD music was used for music and hymns.

Did anything distract you?

The ceremonial and the building were both distracting. The New Church was established in the late 18th century by a Methodist and an Anglican and incorporates a bit of both traditions. Their churches are usually built like parish churches with altars and reredos. I was also distracted by the minister wearing a white cassock with a yellow band, which meant something but I couldn't remember what.

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

It was certainly not happy clappy – rather, in was in some ways not unlike a high Anglican service. It was traditional and quite liturgical, which is unusual for nonconformist churches. The service was based around the General Conference New Church prayer book, which is similar to the Book of Common Prayer. The minister wore robes. The hymns were all Welsh: "Love divine, all loves excelling", "In heavenly love abiding", and "Guide me o thou great Jehovah." One nod to the Methodist influence were the individual communion cups that were recieved at the altar rail.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

40 minutes.

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

10 – This was clearly an emotional service for the minister. He spent some time talking about recent members of the church.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The sermon was about re-pitching the tent. Although services were coming to a close at Cranbrook Road, Christianity would live on elsewhere. The church here had served its purpose and it was time to let go even though it was sad.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The loud and enthusiastic singing and the simplicity of the building on a dismal October evening.

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

The fact that yet another church was closing and this lovely building will most likely be a pile of rubble in a few years' time, as it isn't in a great condition.

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

We had a look around the building and had some cake to mark the occasion. We also talked to people from the Bournemouth church, which is now the last New Church in the West Country (the southwest of England).

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

It was very good and I enjoyed the cake!

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

N/A – As the church has closed this would not be possible!

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

It did. Even though the church was closing, Mr Curry made it clear that this was only the end of the story at Cranbrook Road and that Christianity would live on.

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

The emotion from people leading the service at the end of more than 200 years of worship in this place.

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