Mystery Worshipper: Leo
Church: St Stephen's
Location: Southmead, Bristol, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 30 October 2005, 10:00am
A modern council estate brick church with a cage-like belfry perched atop a tower. St Stephen's was built in 1959 and is set in a very pretty garden. The interior is framed by arches that give it the appearance of a cavern. Above the high altar is a huge impressionistic sculpture entitled "The Ascending Christ."
It seems to be a close knit congregation though there were not many young people evident.
Southmead is a council estate about four miles from the centre of Bristol. It has been the fortunate beneficiary of a number of initiatives for crime prevention and community safety, such as a programme for identifying at-risk young people, a day nursery, a drugs project, and training and work programmes. These have resulted in a marked reduction in drug dealing, among other benefits. The church provides rooms and meeting places for a number of community development and youth outreach groups.
The celebrant was the Rev. Graeme Parfitt, a former vicar. The preacher was the Rev. John Hall, vicar. A lay person (trainee reader?) led the first part of the service.
What was the name of the service?Parish Eucharist
How full was the building?
About 40 people.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes, someone gave me a hymn book and service booklet.
Was your pew comfortable?
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The congregation were fairly quiet but there was a lot of conversation between the greeters on the door and the people coming in.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Welcome to today's service," followed by an explanation that the new service booklets were going to be dedicated in memory of former members of the congregation.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Hymns Ancient and Modern, New Standard and the service booklets that were blessed at the beginning.
What musical instruments were played?
Did anything distract you?
There was a child playing at the back but I was OK with that. I could not help my eyes continually being drawn to the huge sculpture over the high altar, which was not entirely to my taste but I suspect it would grow on me.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Moderately high church, i.e. bells without smells.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – There were many anecdotes, perhaps too many, delivered too quickly, with little congregational response. There were also many poignant quotations from John Wesley and others on the topic of holiness.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The communion of saints: we are changed by God's grace.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Not heaven, exactly, but I was pleasantly surprised at the good singing, in harmony, by a choir of nine people and at the very thoughtful and well-ordered intercessions led by a lay woman.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Soaking wet trousers! My umbrella afforded me scant protection as I walked from the bus stop to the church in driving rain and strong wind. I really wanted to remove my trousers and put them over a radiator! Every time I knelt down, I felt them squish. Also the sound system was very effective when one person spoke, but when the two priests were both switched on there was a screeching feedback.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
The vicar welcomed me and showed a genuine interest in who I was, where I worked, etc. This is one of the best post-service conversations I have ever had with a priest. Most are of the limp handshake and "Nice to see you, now pardon me whilst I look away" kind. This guy was warm and genuine.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
I did not have time to stay as I had to catch an infrequent bus (or wait in the rain for a long interval before the next one).
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – It would appeal to my social conscience to be part of a congregation in a tough area, though I am not sure what sort of realistic contribution I could make unless I actually lived there.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The genuineness of the vicar's greeting.