Mystery Worshipper: Aileen
Church: St Mary Magdalene
Location: Holloway, London
Date of visit: Sunday, 20 December 2009, 6:30pm
A Georgian, 1814 building, square with solid wooden pews upstairs, plain windows with round tops, and an old organ. Downstairs there are chairs and a choir and a musician group at the front, and rooms under the pews. On the ceiling there are three circles of flowers and at the front there is a picture of Jesus with a gold star within which is the Holy Spirit bird. There are sets of lights from the ceiling with organic electric lights within them. There was a small table covered with a white cloth and coloured Advent candles on it.
It seems to be a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic community with charity support for asylum seekers and refugees.
There are six streets in London named Holloway Road; this one is in Islington, a vibrant residential, shopping and business area in central London. There is a beautiful garden around the church and many various types of restaurants from all over the world in the local streets. The football stadium known as the Emirates, formerly Ashburton Grove, is nearby.
The Revds Graham Hunter, Jonathan Rust and Paul Zapirou, all listed on the church's website as "clergy," presided. They were assisted by Stuart Reid, music director.
What was the name of the service?Carols by Candlelight
How full was the building?
Very full; downstairs was full and upstairs was half-full, and so there must have been more than 200 people. There was a mixture of old and young, including some babies.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes. Greeters at the door smiled and welcomed me and told me about the mulled wine and minced pie after the carol service. Upstairs, a sidesman smiled and welcomed me and showed me where to sit.
Was your pew comfortable?
Yes; it was a classic ancient wood pew with good space and a separate wooden long loose velvet kneeler.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Music was happening and people were welcoming each other and chatting before the first carol started. We were given lighted candles to hold.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
After the first carol, "Once in royal David's city", Mr Hunter said, "Welcome! Well done for coming through the ice and snow! Take care of your candles – keep them upright."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
A printed booklet entitled Carols by Candlelight.
What musical instruments were played?
Piano, guitar, bass guitar, cello, trumpet, horns, saxophones and drums.
Did anything distract you?
The candles that everyone held – every so often I noticed people sensibly having to shift the candle away from such things as their children's hair.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Very cheerful. We were asked to keep silent for a moment as we thought about the first Christmas. Then we recited the Lord's Prayer and the choir began to lead us in carols. The pattern was that the choir sang the first verse of each carol in harmony, and then the congregation joined in for the remaining verses. The carols were interspersed with readings from the Bible. The musicians played excellently and clearly, and the tempo was quicker than that usually taken by congregations singing carols.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
There were two sermons: 10 minutes by Mr Rust and 9 minutes by Mr Zophiriou.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 – Each preacher spoke of the meaning of Christmas, sprinkling their talks with colourful illustrations from the gospels.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
God's nature is that of openhandedness and generosity of spirit, as Isaiah wrote. The love that family members show for each other mirrors God's love for us. The message of Christmas is to banish fear, as Christ told us not to be afraid. God loves each one of us individually. Jesus gave us many illustrations of this personal love, such as the parables of the good Samaritan and the prodigal son, and the Lord's Prayer. Jesus, God, has physical and emotional experience of being in the world with us, healing then and now our emotions and spirits. Jesus serves us, washes our feet, embraces all people, gives us gifts and talents. Start every day as a new, golden time.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Wonderful music, both vocal and instrumental, and a reminder of God's practical and sensible love and care for us.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
We held our lighted candles throughout the service, and the hot dripping wax increasingly became a problem. Just try getting collection money out of your purse while holding a lighted candle!
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I was immediately offered mulled wine or coffee and mince pie, and smiled and chatted to by those serving that. They asked if I'd ever been before, and when I said never, they welcomed me to be able to come again.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Mulled wine was in a thick plastic cup, half full, warm. We were also given a nice mince pie, and later offered another one – I have no idea where they came from.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 – If I lived near, I'm sure I would enjoy and appreciate this church. The people were all very friendly; the music, prayers, readings (some children taking part in both) and sermons were all good.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, I was glad to hear the Bible readings and enjoyed singing the carols. Hearing about God's love and care for me as well as others was an uplifting experience.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The very pleasant music, the friendly people and the beautiful church.