Mystery Worshipper: John of Arc
Church: St Edmund's
Location: Acle, Norfolk, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 27 August 2006, 11:00am
The church is a beautiful Saxon and mediaeval flint structure with a thatched nave roof. Today's service was, however, held in a white tent in a field next door to the church building, for reasons which the rector explained in his sermon.
This is the parish church for the village of Acle, in Norfolk, and the building is shared by the Roman Catholics.
A trading post in Roman times, Acle continued to be an important trade centre for the surrounding area in the centuries that followed. In the Domesday Book it was noted that there were 23 villagers, 38 smallholders and three slaves at Acle. Although the village has developed in modern times, its traditional character remains. Acle's reputation is somewhat sullied by the Acle Straight, that portion of the A47 motorway running from Acle to Great Yarmouth, which has a relatively high accident rate and is held by many to be a dangerous road.
The rector, the Revd Dan Bond. He is a young man, probably in his early 30s, and was dressed in black jeans and black clerical shirt complete with Jedi cufflinks.
What was the name of the service?Feeding Time (a service celebrating the children's holiday club that week).
How full was the building?
Bursting – the tent beside the church had seats for maybe 70 people, and I estimate that 90 had turned up for the service. Extra chairs were brought out from the church by various handy helpers.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
We were greeted very warmly by a lady who turned out to be the rector's wife, and then by the two sidesperson-ladies who handed us specially produced service sheets.
Was your pew comfortable?
The chairs were standard issue plastic seats with metal legs, as found in halls and schools throughout the world. They were comfortable enough.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
It was buzzing and noisy and friendly, with children making a lot of noise and many people chatting loudly to each other. I overheard two older men as they came into the tent saying (loudly), "It's just like being back in the army, isn't it?"
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Morning everyone!" (Repeated as no one heard him over the hubbub.)
What books did the congregation use during the service?
It was all on the specially produced service sheets, two sheets of paper printed and folded. There was a Bible reading from Matthew, but I didn't get the version. Afterwards, inside the church, I noticed that the big pulpit Bible was a Good News Bible.
What musical instruments were played?
Keyboard, acoustic and electric guitars, and some smaller brass (maybe trumpets or cornets). I also heard some tambourines, but I didn't actually see anyone shaking them. We sang a few popular modern choruses, which the congregation didn't seem to know very well. The musicians led a rendition of "Praise my soul the King of Heaven," which the older members of the congregation knew better.
Did anything distract you?
The sound amplification was a bit sporadic, with the rector starting off with no volume, and the poor electric guitarist strumming with no sound for at least one song. It was a very busy, active service, with a lot of children running to the front and doing actions, and a lot of people moving around, but that was really the nature of the occasion.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The worship was generally child-compatible, with plenty of action songs done from the front, led by the very energetic and enthusiastic female music leader. There were several ad-libbed sections where the children shared some of their Children's Club activities with the congregation. This was interesting, if perhaps a bit flippant.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
6 – The rector read his sermon from notes, but nevertheless managed to be lively and interesting most of the time, with some good expression in both voice and body.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
We all need to be as little children, as our Lord commanded us. Being childlike and being "church" means being a community of people who believe, not being focused on a church building. This may be a new and strange comcept for some, but we should not be afraid to go down that route. That is one of the reasons why we are holding today's service in a tent rather than in the familiar church surroundings.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The children were full of laughter and joy at being there and having enjoyed their week's club. There was such a buzz of energy from them, their parents and the other worshippers that the place really did feel like a real church of friendly, joyful Christians.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
I was tense doing my first ever Mystery Worshipper visit, and couldn't find a way of slipping my visiting card into anything without being spotted. I admit that I had to resort to putting the card into the fabric fund slot in the church wall... I apologise for my abject failure!
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Mainly polite nods and hellos. We stayed to look at the artwork from the club, and a couple of people (including the rector) asked us where we were from and made pleasant conversation. It felt a very warm and welcoming, if frantic, post-service atmosphere. As we were ready to leave, we noticed that a baptism seemed about to start, so we felt the urge to make room.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
None (and I could have done with a coffee).
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – I believe I would be made very welcome in this church, and it clearly has some lively activities that my children would enjoy. The rector appears to be relatively new in post, and I suspect (in part from his sermon) that he is encouraging some changes in the rather quiet little village church. It was not a usual service, but the mix of worship and people felt very healthy.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, with the obvious warmth of the congregation.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The rector's Jedi cufflinks have stuck in my mind – they are quirky and fun, but as representing an official non-Christian religion in the UK (yes, it really is), are they ecumenism gone too far?