Mystery Worshipper: Haveuheardthemessage
Church: Southover Church
Location: Lewes, East Sussex, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 15 August 2010, 10:30am
A light and airy building of medieval foundation with the most beautifully coloured windows I've seen in some time. The Gundrada Chapel was built in 1847 after the excavation of the site of Lewes Priory during the building of the Brighton to Lewes Railway, when the remains of William de Warenne and his wife Gundrada were found in small leaden caskets. The church has recently undergone some re-ordering. Many original features remain, but the choir pews have been removed in favour of chairs, two large screens suspended from the ceiling, and new meeting rooms built on in the last year or so.
The medieval church originated as a hospitium or guest house. By 1320 the chapel had become a church, and by 1374 it is precisely described as the parish church of St John. The website emphasises the modern congregation's commitment to being at the heart of the community, forward-thinking and outward reaching.
Lewes is a market town where bookshops, boutiques and antique centres sit alongside individual craft workshops. There is also an interesting assortment of restaurants, cafes, and pubs. Lewes Castle, built in 1066, is a popular tourist attraction and affords a spectacular view of the town.
Communion was celebrated by the Revd Jeremy Bamber (apparently a visiting clergyman). The preacher was Ken Bridger.
What was the name of the service?Holy Communion at Southover.
How full was the building?
Right up until the last minute the building only appeared half-full, but when I next turned round, the building was pretty much full, with at least four or five people on each pew. I'd guess attendance was around the 175 mark. There were not many youngsters. It seems about 40+ of the children were at "Soul Survivor". They were mainly elderly people, with a handful of young families. Most people appeared middle class, well-dressed and well-spoken.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
I was greeted at the main entrance by two lovely bubbly ladies, who immediately realised we were visiting and made us feel most welcome. We went through the second doors into the main building and were handed our service sheets, but the gentleman did not speak, just smiled! The ladies at the door introduced us to the celebrant, which was nice, and he did pop back and talk to us about the children's work. We were left in the hands of Ron Hammond, the churchwarden, who told us about the Sunday school.
Was your pew comfortable?
After the re-ordering they have left the congregational pews in place, which had nice embroidered kneelers, and a carpet runner as some form of padding. I was left with a somewhat strange itchy/numb rear end!
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Most people were just hanging around chatting. The choir were practising up front, which was nice. Eveybody seemed rather busy. There was a lot of hustle and bustle, and even the celebrant was running around doing last-minute jobs.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
There was teething problems with the sound system for the first few moments, but I just made out "Good morning, everyone, nice to see you all here!" Mr Bamber then went on to give a personal welcome to visitors, including us. Sweet!
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The communion service was on a printed sheet, and the order of service, readings and hymns were printed on another. The service was also displayed on the screens. Reference was made to pew Bibles, where there was also to hand a pad of paper and pens. Brilliant idea!
What musical instruments were played?
Just the pipe organ, played well. For all the hymns the choir were unrobed and stood facing the congregation.
Did anything distract you?
Right in the middle of the intercessions, the urn came to the boil and started to rattle. Such a silly thing to remember, but it was so quiet during the prayers that it sounded like the urn was about to take off!
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The communion had been simplified, missing out the Gloria etc. I admit this gave the service a more contemporary feel, and would have made it less daunting for a newcomer. The first two hymns weren't well-known to me, although the congregation sang heartily: I am guessing they were Ancient and Modern, certainly not Mission Praise or Songs of Worship songs. The singing was pretty stiff-upper-lip, with no chance of any clapping or arm raising. When the children were ushered out after the first hymn, the choir stood up the front and sang, which I thought was a nice touch. The choir – mainly older people, and both men and women – were clearly well-practised and sounded great. During the last hymn I strangely found myself feeling a little tearful and was fighting the urge to lift my arms. It was only on the last verse that out of the corner of my eye I spotted a man raising his arm. (It turned out he was the rector, who had just returned from taking another service.) I wish I'd seen him earlier, as I would have relaxed and gone with the flow.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – The preacher appeared to be sticking rigidly to his notes, glancing at them every couple of seconds. But he was well-spoken, and easy to listen to, with a clear voice and nice manner.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The theme for the service was "fearless for Christ", and the sermon followed from that. The preacher spoke to us about standing firm in the faith, speaking out, taking risks, and shining the light of Jesus. An emphasis was put on Southover Church as a whole, going into the community to spread the gospel. There was a real encouraging undertone to the message, and I really felt that there was a genuine commitment from the people of the church to carry the good news to the wider community.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Many things put a smile on my face during the service. It was easy to follow, and I found the order of service helpful. Mr Bamber invited us up for communion with the words "This is not MY invitation, it is JESUS' invitation, so if you are in a relationship with Jesus, please come forward!" I just thought that was so well said and open. Also, my baby was a real handful during the service, quite noisy, and insisting on slapping me and pulling my hair. I sat waiting for a glare or a tut, but instead, I got smiles, and certain kindly looks of "We understand, don't worry." I was made to feel very comfortable, despite my little one's attempt to destroy the building. Finally, the moment of bliss arrived as the choir stepped into the Gunrada Chapel to sing during the communion. Sheer delight.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
I expect the communion bread was lovingly handmade by one of the long-standing mother's union members. It is a shame she made it back in 2008. It was rather stale and salty. Yuk, sorry.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
One of the initial welcomer ladies came to chat, and we spoke for some time. Apart from that there was little contact initiated from any of the congregation. It was I who started the two other conversations. But it was really busy, and quite crowded, so I may have been lost in the crowd.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Mmmm, real coffee, although lukewarm and gulped in two mouthfuls. It tasted great nonetheless. But my husband's tea looked like dish water. The biscuit selection was bog standard, so nothing special.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – It is clear that this is a church which is growing and moving forward, with a big heart for the community and a commitment to sharing the love of our Lord. I have recently come away from the Church of England after 33 years, but if this church were in my town, I'd be back like a shot.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Oh yes! There was just a nice vibe. It seems that the new(ish) incumbent has had some pretty big boots to fill, as the last chap was there for many years. It seems to me he is doing a jolly good job, and bringing the people forward in their journeys with Christ. I would be very interested to go to the informal worship one evening and see what they are doing for the "younger ones".
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
Goosebumpy, spine-tingling feeling during communion as the choir sang.