Mystery Worshipper: Thornbury Neil
Church: Sidmouth United Reformed
Location: Sidmouth, Devon, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 12 February 2012, 10:30am
A seaside lancet styled stone chapel dating from the 1850s in what I call Seaside Gothic. The interior, with a fine blue hammer beam roof, is clearly mid Victorian and looks quite Anglican, with choir stalls and central communion table. There didn't appear to be any heating on in the church and it was a very icy cold winter's day.
They minister to a small seaside town that attracts many elderly people who come here to retire, and I'm told this reflects itself in church attendance.
Situated at the mouth of the River Sid (hence its name), Sidmouth is a pleasant seaside town overlooking a fine beach with huge cliffs on either side. In 1819, Edward Duke of Kent, son of King George III, took a cottage in Sidmouth with his wife and baby daughter Victoria. While walking along the beach, the Duke caught chill and shortly thereafter was dead from pneumonia. His father, George III, died six days later, and George's son William ascended the throne as William IV. When William died in 1837 leaving no legitimate heirs (but a bevy of illegitimate ones), Victoria became Queen. The Duke's cottage is now the Royal Glen Hotel, and a plaque on an exterior wall records the visit. The chapel is hemmed in on a rather narrow and quiet back street.
The Revd Jessie Clare, minister.
What was the name of the service?Morning Service.
How full was the building?
A scattering of 18 elderly people over a large Gothic church. However, we were spread across the whole building. All of the congregation appeared to be in their 80s and 90s, and I had the impression that they sat in the same pews every week.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
One gentleman greeted me but appeared a bit suspicious as I walked through the lobby (I was 40 years younger than the rest of the church!). Also, I don't think he heard my reply. After I sat down, a lady in front of me told me she was 94! She said that she used to come here on walking holidays and that this is where she married her husband. A friendly Scottish lady came and sat next to me too.
Was your pew comfortable?
A mid Victorian pew that appeared not to have changed since the day it was put in.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The organ didn't start up until a few minutes beforehand. The minister brushed by and said she was late and had forgotten her cassock! She had to go back and pick it up. People filed into their pews and spread out quite a bit.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning. I had to dash back to get my cassock. Welcome to all visitors."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Rejoice and Sing (denominational hymn book).
What musical instruments were played?
An organ at the east end in a Gothic case. I was expecting a village chapel harmonium-grade instrument but this looked and sounded rather good. The elderly organist played some Victorian music, which contributed to the atmosphere of the place.
Did anything distract you?
I felt like a ghost of modernity haunting the church I really did! The interior looked as if we had been transported back to the Victorian age, with its blue hammer beam roof, Gothic pews, and a row of Gothic ministers' seats. I half expected some bearded Victorian characters to step out of the vestry as if from out of a sepia photograph! Not one of the congregation was aged below 80. There was nothing here to indicate that we were in the 21st century, except for the seagulls visible through the east lancet window.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was standard United Reformed Church hymn sandwich. Traditional, but I liked it! The hymns were Anglican in style (like the interior of the church) and timeless.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 – I half expected to switch off and think about other things, but the Revd Clare's anecdotes held my interest and her talk was actually quite engaging. The message really touched me. I had the feeling that bereavement appeared to be an issue for this congregation and maybe the town.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The theme was taken from Jeremiah and was based loosely on the notion of "What would you do today if you knew the world was going to end tomorrow?" Life is for living. In many areas of the world people don't get to "live." She also told us that her husband, just before he died, had told her to invest in some particular shares. But she felt that when he passed, she had already lost her life. But the shares did well and she picked up her life. She also talked about her call to the ministry.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The sermon touched me, as did the friendly nature of the people in the congregation. It is clear that their church community is a caring one.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
There was an air of inevitable closure. As I left, one lady said to me, "This is a dying congregation quite literally!" The building and the worship were clearly from an age that had upped and left. I felt rather sad to think that I had probably walked in on the last chapter of a story.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
The organist played a Victorian piece of music and the congregation made its way to the hall. The elderly gent who had greeted me earlier said good-bye, but again appeared to mishear my answer.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
I was offered some but had to get back to my hotel.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 – It would be lovely to come back and breathe some life into this church. However, the town is awash with livelier churches. It is inevitable that should I return to Sidmouth in ten years time, I would find that this building had been transformed into an antiques emporium or holiday flats. It is sad to see a friendly group of people struggle.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
A lonely one maybe!
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
Being a "ghost of modernity" in a place that hasn't really moved out of the 19th century!