Mystery Worshipper: Wes Charles
Church: St Mark's
Location: Harrogate, North Yorkshire, England
Date of visit: Wednesday, 25 March 2015, 10:00am
The church was begun in 1898 and opened the next year, but not consecrated until 1905. I couldnt find any information about why the consecration was so delayed. It is an imposing building that looks larger than it is from the outside, as it is quite tall. Upon entering, one notices that it is a little smaller than expected. There is a rose window at the west end, and an odd glass structure in the roof that I noted from outside but not in. The chairs were all modern, with a modern-looking cross at the front.
St Mark's is a very active church. On a typical Sunday there are five services. They appear to have a large outreach programme, which includes a project to provide safe drinking water, a trip to Ghana, and the Alpha course.
We were only passing through and stayed for one night, but it seemed quite affluent, with many young professionals living in the area. It is attractive, with tree-lined streets of houses which I guess were built around the same time as the church. There were beautiful vintage street lights on the side streets, but they had notices on them saying they would be removed as they were too old, which I thought was a shame.
The Revd Guy Donegan-Cross, vicar.
What was the name of the service?I didnt notice a name, but someone told me it was the All-Age Service, so lets call it that!
How full was the building?
We arrived ten minutes early and it was almost empty, but by the time the service started it was about 80 per cent full I guess about a couple of hundred people, but Im not good at estimating that kind of thing. There was a three-hour service going on in the afternoon, and someone told me thered be more people at that one. Apparently on a Sunday its packed. This certainly has the feel of a thriving church.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes. We were greeted as we entered and handed a nice crisp piece of rag for use later in the service. Once wed sat down, a couple of other people greeted us as they entered, and the vicar came over to say hello and have a little chat.
Was your pew comfortable?
It was a modern pew with a soft red cushion very comfortable indeed. We sat at the back, and there was a convenient shelf behind us to put our coats on. Unexpected, but not unwelcome!
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Even as the church filled, the atmosphere was quiet and thoughtful, except for a small child who was quite vocal and walking around at the back. Im afraid that child was ours!
What were the exact opening words of the service?
I completely forgot the exact opening words, because the next sentence caught my attention more, which was that there would be hot cross buns available afterwards. This was met with a very muted grunt of approval from the congregation, but the vicar got more of a reaction when he added that they would be free. It was early on Good Friday, and I guess the congregation hadnt had their morning coffee yet!
What books did the congregation use during the service?
None. In the pews were The Holy Bible, New International Version (1984 inclusive language version) and Hymns Old and New, along with a contact card. However, everything for this service was projected onto the screen at the front.
What musical instruments were played?
Mrs Charles was disappointed not to hear the organ, but the band was very competent. We couldnt really see them from where we sat, but I believe it consisted of an electric keyboard, oboe and singer. I liked the way they re-harmonised the last verses of two of the hymns.
Did anything distract you?
Yes that small child again, who was intent on wandering round the church, particularly toward a (fortunately very friendly) lady on the end of the pew in front of us. I tried my best to concentrate despite having to fetch her back many times (the child, not the friendly lady). In the end, Mrs Charles had to take her out to the foyer to play with a toy they had out there, so she missed the end of the service.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Very low-church, but definitely not happy-clappy. The worship was quite informal and relaxed, but also very thoughtful. Perhaps thats because it was Good Friday, but to me it felt very comfortable, in a modern kind-of way. A girl opened with a beautiful reading from Mark. Then the vicar read a story, The Ragman by Walter Wangerin. Id not heard this story before, but its a touching allegory. The ragman (representing Jesus) travels round a town finding broken people. He takes their ragged clothes and swaps them for clean new ones. Each time he takes rags, he takes peoples brokenness as well. Then he dies and rises again with the brokenness gone, except for a small scar. Its a beautiful story. At the end of this, we were all invited to bring the rags wed been given on entering the church up to the cross, and to give them to Jesus and thank him for washing us clean. It was incredibly moving.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
10 – The vicar had a very relaxed style and was quite funny at times, yet very sincere. He has a very engaging way of speaking and it feels like hes speaking straight from his heart rather than his head. Were used to good preachers at our church in London, but this chap was up there with the best. I was particularly impressed that he managed to speak effectively to all ages.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
He invited a boy up and gave him a white t-shirt to wear over his own clothes. He then explained that this is how God made us pure and in a right relationship with God. Then he got out some paints and a paint brush and started painting on the t-shirt. With each stroke, to talked about the sins we commit during our lives, and showed the stains these leave on us. Eventually, the boy was quite filthy. The preacher then asked what could be done about this, and encouraged the kids to notice a new white t-shirt hung over a large wooden cross at the front, then he swapped the dirty clothes for the clean ones. The sermon was one of the best ways Ive heard to explain what Christ did for us on Good Friday.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Its hard to say, as we enjoyed the morning so much.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Wondering whether the vicars watercolours were going to seep through the boys white t-shirt onto his own clothes underneath. The way he looked at his own t-shirt after the sermon made me think that it did seep through just a little!
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Overall, this was a really lovely service, but the church did drop a point here. We looked lost for a little, and Mrs Charles got us some coffee and hot cross buns, but no one came to chat afterwards. This surprised us, as people were very friendly at the beginning. After a few minutes we took our daughter into a little side room to play with a toy they had in there.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Nice fair-trade coffee and half a hot cross bun. I was a little disappointed to get the bottom half rather than the top.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
10 – This is the sort of church Id commute across town to attend. I wouldnt commute the 220 miles it would actually take me, though.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?