St Hilary's, Wallasey

St Hilary's, Wallasey, Wirral, England


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Hilary's
Location: Wallasey, Wirral, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 5 April 2015, 11:00am

The building

A prominent landmark church standing proud on the headland overlooking Liverpool Bay and the Dee estuary toward North Wales. Dating from the 19th century and added to over the years, it is the fifth church to stand on the site. The old tower of 1530 stands in the churchyard and is the only remaining part of church number four. It was gutted by fire in 1837, seen as God's judgement for the sins of the people. But actually God did them a favour, as it enabled this Victorian pile to be built for the rapidly expanding borough of Wallasey. The church tower houses a peal of six bells; regular maintenance ensures they are well hung and in tip-top order. The well-lit interior includes a plethora of stained glass, including some by Kempe in the Lady chapel. The east window is particularly noteworthy: a sparkling kaleidoscope of black, red and green, illustrating the Te Deum. The nave features arched sandstone arcades with carved detail at the tops of the columns. The high altar oak reredos (1874) is beautifully carved with figures of Christ, the apostles, saints, and some Old Testament characters. Above are the faces of animals, some with hands over their eyes. There is a modern nave altar table on a raised dais with communion rails in a semicircle. Judging from the trappings, St Hilary's must have been high church at some point: indeed, the book stall offers a St Hilary's Church History and Guide full of the old sepia pictures that show a very different uncluttered interior: traditional pews, robed choir, cassocks and surplices. What I experienced today was as far a cry from that as one could possibly cry (and cry was what I felt like doing!).

The church

There are Women's and Men's Societies, messy church, Rainbows, Brownies, and Boys' Brigade, as well as a bowls club and a Busy Bees play group. There is a youth club every Friday. Bell ringers, of course. St Hilary's draws people to it just by being there in its prominent position. Services include two Sunday morning services plus evening worship as well as a Thursday holy communion.

The neighborhood

Wallasey covers a big area of the Wirral peninsula. To the east, the river Mersey sprawls across its sandy estuary, and river craft (including the Manx and Irish ferries) make their way out to the open sea. Modern day wind farms have replaced the beech-covered headland of the primeval forests that once covered the whole of this area. The close proximity of the docks made the area a target of enemy bombings, and there is a mass grave in the local Rake Lane cemetery for the many victims of the German bombers. The May blitz of 1941 caused the loss of many lives in the locality. Come prepared for your visit to St Hilary's: you will need your Alpenstock for the hike up the hill its so steep!

The cast

The Revd Alan Ward, rector; the Revd Calum Piper, curate.

What was the name of the service?

All Age Communion with Sunday Club.

How full was the building?

Half full, approximately 70 in the nave. A mixture of young and old.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

I was indeed summoned by bells on Easter Day, striding across Wallasey from the town centre with railings to hang onto for the ascent. It is very steep. The steps up to the churchyard are worn away by much plodding over the years. Arriving, I saw a prominent notice on the wall that read: "Welcome to St Hilary's" above a pleasing display of red tulips and yellow and white daffodils. The young man handing out service sheets wished me a happy Easter. One of the sideswomen also greeted me with a pleasant "Hello, happy Easter."

Was your pew comfortable?

I attended a wedding here about 25 years ago and the interior bears no resemblance now to what I remember. The wooden pews have been torn out and replaced by the dreaded timber-framed padded chair, with hymn book compartment and ledge for books. Individual tapestry kneeler; mine depicted a church bell. They are comfy, aren't they, these modern chairs? But in a row for eight people, there were two others besides me. I forgot myself and said hello to them. Response: nothing.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Total disarray. No atmosphere. Just like a cattle market. There were bodies all over the place. A small child was looking for his mum." I've eated my Easter eggs," he said. "Iv'e eated mine too!" I told him. Cadbury's cream eggs – the fondant filled ones are very sweet! Everyone appeared to be talking, standing up in groups. Children charged around. The little boy who had eated his Easter eggs was fighting with a little girl in the corner, where a lady was seated on one of the kids' chairs. Some people nursed cups of pre-service coffee – at least I think it was coffee (read on!). The floral arrangements for Easter were lost against a sea of cluttered untidiness. Calum Piper, curate, stood like a spare part in the aisle, sporting a red and white checked clerical shirt. "I like to look modern," he told me. I thought he looked like he had an upset tummy – perhaps he had eated all his eggs too! The overhead screen carried the caption "Happy Easter Alleluia!"

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Good morning. Happy Easter!" from the rector, who just wore his ordinary clerical shirt, trousers and jacket. No vestments. I thought he looked untidy, like his church.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version; Common Praise; something called St Hilary's Song Book. There was also an all age worship Easter Day communion sheet (yellow) that replaced the one given out to us when we arrived (orange). The rector asked us to hand back the other one: "The sidesman will exchange it for a yellow one," he said.

What musical instruments were played?

Keyboard and guitar (mainly). No choir. A woman sang into a microphone.

Did anything distract you?

What didn't? I was literally driven to distraction by the chaos in here. I am not the tidiest of persons at home, but hey! There was just too much in the place. Very distracting. To top it all off, there was loud screeching and feedback from the PA system during the first hymn ("Sorry about that, everyone!" the rector exclaimed).

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

Low Protestant. Casual, flat and lifeless. But they did have candles lit on both the high and nave altars. Three small children took up the offertory and then skipped back down the aisle; the little girl was wearing her Easter bonnet, with all the frills upon it. We were asked to engage in a bit of origami (paper folding) just before the dismissal; the result should have been the shape of a cross. Mine, however, was a rather rude shape that didn't really look at all like a cross! I held it up to the lady behind me. She looked horrified. The baby she had with her began eating her origami cross.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

21 minutes.

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

4 – They called it "the Talk." Calum Piper had notes in front of him but lost the thread a few times. I got the impression nobody was paying much attention to him anyway.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

He said that people call him the "Jesus person" when he is out and about, as well as some other less pleasant names. Mary Magdalene called Jesus Rabboni. Jesus calls us by name too. Hear him. Recognise him and respond to his call by following him.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

After the service I wandered into the sanctuary and stood in front of the high altar. There are Minton tiles on the sanctuary floor and a feeling of holiness I hadn't found in the building up until then. The candles were still lit on the altar and it was flanked with white flowers, which I had not been able to appreciate properly from my seat in the nave on account of the overhead screen obliterating a large chunk of the sanctuary.

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

I was not keen on the style of worship. And I do try to make allowances but it was just too low-key. And there were too many people who made believe they didn't hear me when I spoke to them. And how do you bring order out of chaos?

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

After the dismissal, I immediately became the invisible Mystery Worshipper. I gravitated toward the Lady chapel. "Can I help you?" a woman enquired. "No. Im just having a look in here." "Have we got your contact details?" "No, I don't think you have." (But you will soon have the Mystery Worshipper's calling card!) Another lady who was just leaving the chapel totally ignored me when I said hello.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

The rector reminded us that refreshments were being served afterward in the narthex at the back. "Do we help ourselves?" I asked the tea server. There was no reply. I didn't like the look of the cold muddy brown liquid in the cups. Was it tea or coffee? Could have been anything. I helped myself to some black currant squash instead – black currant or orange to choose from. There had been biscuits, but there were just a few plain broken bits left on a plate. There was a basket of small chocolate eggs, the size of your thumb nail, wrapped in different coloured foil. A small child was filling her bag with them! "Have a few more," I said, offering her the basket. "Don't encourage her!" retorted a woman who must have been her granny. I took two of these teeny-weeny Easter eggs and eated them on the way home.

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

0– Er, no - They have effectively ruined a perfectly good church, by the looks of it, in favour of something much diluted and with no real heart to it. Probably in the attempt to attract younger people. There was no great joyful Eastertidi-ness about it and no sense of occasion whatsoever.

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

Perhaps the good people of St Hilary's like the casual approach, or maybe they want to shield their eyes like the animals carved on the reredos. Does talking to a stranger trouble them? To me they appear totally to have missed the point of the most important day in the Christian calendar. Truly I felt as if I had not taken part in any Easter celebration in church that morning. When I got back to the car, I put on a cassette of Handels Messiah, wound the window down, and turned the volume up. I felt uplifted and glad to be a Christian after all! Hallelujah!

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

The little girl taking up the collection in her Easter bonnet.

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