Mystery Worshipper: Torold
Church: St Ethelwold's
Location: Shotton, Flintshire, North Wales
Date of visit: Sunday, 8 March 2015, 11:00am
An interesting shaped church building of pink sandstone. It was designed in the Early English style by John Douglas, the Victorian architect whose eclectic styled churches, shops, banks, offices, schools, memorials and public buildings can be found throughout North Wales, Cheshire and northwest England. It dates from 1898-1902 and sports a small bell tower at the west end, surmounted by a short spire, and an apse at the east end. There is a chunky porch, with a grey Welsh slate roof edged in red terra-cotta ridge tiles and red-painted down spouts and gutters. The lofty, impressive interior is spoiled, I thought, by the intrusion of the free-standing nave altar. But it looks well kept throughout, with a very shiny wooden floor. The wonderful high altar draws the eye upward toward the pre-Raphaelite inspired reredos under a gilded canopy with gold, red and blue detail depicting angels adoring Christ the King. The light oak choir stalls with carved bench ends complement the priest's and deacon's stalls. Victorian stained glass throughout depicts various saints. The baptistery features a sandstone octagonal font with carved wooden steeple-shaped cover.
St Ethelwold's is one of two churches in the parish of Shotton. Ethelwold was a monk under St Dunstan at Glastonbury and later Bishop of Winchester in the 10th century. He was also the monastic founder of Ely, Peterborough and Thorney. He translated the Rule of St Benedict into English. St Ethelwold's describes themselves as "a warm and friendly church community in the catholic tradition." From the clues I found in the parish magazine, I was able to glean a little more information: there is a Mothers Union, ladies' and men's fellowships, and bingo in the church hall. An events committee is meeting to plan a spring lunch.
Shotton, a town in Flintshire, lies along the River Dee near the border with England, about five miles west of Chester. It was once home to British Steel and the John Summers Iron Works, now swept away in favour of popular retail and fast food outlets. E Davies and Son Funeral Directors seem to do a roaring trade, with no less than seven funeral parlours in the locality. There is much housing, many pubs and small corner shops. Deeside Leisure Centre offers ice skating later that day I, too, donned my blades for a spot of figure skating; it's a long time since Colonel Mustard took to the ice! St Ethelwold's Church lies on the main road along the busy B5129 through Shotton.
The Revd Steven Green, SSC, vicar, was the celebrant. An unnamed reader preached.
What was the name of the service?Holy Eucharist.
How full was the building?
On a rainy Sunday morning everyone was a-bed, apart from a few brave joggers in the rain swept streets. The church was about a third full, approximately 45 in the nave and five crimson robed ladies singing in the choir, with two servers in plain albs, the organist, and the vicar.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
I was given a welcome in a half-hearted surprised sort of way by the sidesperson, obviously not used to strangers in their midst. Prior to that, in the porch whilst reading the notices, I was aware of being scrutinised by two women who were also on their way in. One said hello eventually. Perhaps my checked suit and brown brogues put them off!
Was your pew comfortable?
Wooden seat in light oak with red upholstered padded seat and back rest, and individual blue vinyl kneelers. It must have been comfortable because I forgot I was sitting on it.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The usual pre-service racket. The organist was playing Handel's "O Lovely Peace" from Judas Maccabeus, which I recognised. It is extremely bad form to chatter incessantly whilst organists are tuning up.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning and welcome."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Printed service book, red cover: Church in Wales Order for the Holy Eucharist (2004). Printed hymn sheet hymns one side, readings on the other. On the bookshelves at the back were copies of the New English Hymnal and New Hymns and Worship Songs.
What musical instruments were played?
Pipe organ and electric piano.
Did anything distract you?
Fortunately, being a regular churchgoer, I am used to finding my way around the alternatives within service booklets. On this occasion, however, it was tiresome, having to jiggle about with the pages owing to the bilingual format and the various options. My monocle fell out at one point. I gave up in the end and just trotted out standard responses, even if mine did clash with theirs.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Middle-of-the-road catholic high church in Wales. Bells, no smells. Gospel procession out into the midst of the congregation, but again no smoke. I loved it when I turned round to face the gospeller - it was my turn to observe the congregation.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
3 – The lay reader read from his notes throughout – didn't look up, didn't make eye contact. Boring! Nothing one could ponder upon as a useful message.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The sermon was based on the gospel reading, Jesus turning out the money lenders from the temple. "You didn't expect that, did you?" the reader asked us all. "You didn't expect Christ to kick off, lose his rag and get angry." (Why not, I thought.) People often say things in the heat of the moment that they regret having said. But we are all human, none more so than Jesus.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Looking at the blue starry firmament underneath the altar canopy - beautiful! and Colonel Mustard spotting one of his game-mates, a shapely Miss Scarlet, in the nave. Lovelier still!
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Taize grrrrr! It can be effective, but it can also be incredibly dull, with mantras impossible to get out of one's head for several days afterwards! And the peace was not peaceful it was more a case of uproar than anything else: "Chaos in the atrium."
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Nothing whatsoever! But I knew I was being watched. The majority of the congregation had cleared off by now. I listened to the organ recessional: a piece from Bach's Well Tempered Clavier. There was no invitation for coffee or tea. The church hall was deserted. A baptism was scheduled to take place, but the party had been delayed because of traffic. They arrived just as the church was emptying out. Since no one had greeted me, I decided to play the part of greeter and greet them. I was pleased to welcome them with a cheerful face, holding open the door as they all fell up the steps into church and clattered about a bit! The baby's mother, in her plum coloured maxi dress, seemed relieved to find a friendly face.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
4 – St Ethelwold's lacks something, but I couldn't say what exactly. The building is lovely, warm and well kept. The worship, however, seemed empty and the people somewhat aloof. I didn't particularly like the experience here in church at all. Not much of a welcome in the hillside, you might say. I would have liked to have gone and stood on the altar steps at the dismissal and said, "Hi. I'm the Mystery Worshipper," and observed what the reaction was. But, of course, I didn't.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, it did. I was glad to be there and saw myself as an ambassador for the faith, especially because I was able to extend the hand of friendship and love to the baptism party.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
Nothing particularly noteworthy, but I will remember skating at the Deeside Leisure Centre and falling down a lot.