Mystery Worshipper: Mr Cantata
Church: St Thomas
Location: Port Macquarie, New South Wales, Australia
Date of visit: Sunday, 9 November 2008, 8:00am
A historic convict and soldier built church sitting high on a hill overlooking the settlement of Port Macquarie. The foundation stone was laid in 1824 and the first service held in 1828. It is a plain looking rectangular brick building with a square tower, to which a clock was added in 1976. The shingle roof was replaced by corrugated iron in 1883, and by terra cotta tiles in 1923. The original floor was of rammed earth, but nine-inch paving bricks were laid in 1846 and box pews were installed, for which parishioners paid rent. The pews survive to this day, although pew rents were abolished in 1905. The interior of the church is a testament to the pride of workmanship of local artisans – intricately carved wooden pulpit, rostrum, stairways and altar rail complemented by needlepointed cushions which are now being restored by the ladies of the parish. A splendid stained glass window of St Thomas the Apostle was gifted in 1906. Upstairs is a muniments room containing historic documents, photographs, records, old Bibles and prayer books, and vintage musical instruments.
This is a very active parish. They sponsor dozens of spiritual, social and charitable groups all enumerated on their website. Worthy of special mention are growth groups – small gatherings that meet in people's homes for Bible study, mutual support and fellowship, prayer, healing, etc. They celebrate traditional holy communion in the church each Sunday at 8.00am, and a contemporary family service in the parish hall (which they call the worship centre) at 10.00am.
Port Macquarie, founded as a penal colony in 1821, was the second such settlement outside of Sydney. The region was opened to all in 1830, and soon prospered thanks to its good pastoral land, timber resources and fisheries. Although it sits on New South Wales' mid-north coast, the town never gained maritime importance due to treacherous coastal bars. Today Port Macquarie is a popular retirement location and tourist destination, known for its extensive beaches and waterways. In recent times, tensions have arisen between real estate developers and local residents wishing to preserve historic structures and trees.
The Revd Canon Dr John Barrett, acting rector, presided.
What was the name of the service?Holy Communion
How full was the building?
Around 80 people entered the high back stalls in the nave. This was my first experience being in an enclosed personal worship space within a church building. There may have been more than 80 people if one included the short ladies and hidden children.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
This is the first church where I have received a hug and a kiss at the door from an unknown welcomer. I truly believe the old girl at the door was really excited to have me there. Being one of the few younger people in the building, I suspect that I gave her quite a start!
Was your pew comfortable?
No. Extra padding on the seat added little to the straight back and harshness of the high back pew. It was a novelty for awhile, but soon became uncomfortable.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Please stand and sing hymn 498 from Mission Praise."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Each box included a complimentary Holy Bible for the occupants' reading pleasure. A copy of An Australian Prayer Book was provided at the door, along with a copy of Mission Praise (my least favourite hymnal – ugh!).
What musical instruments were played?
An historic 1856 mechanical action Walker barrel organ, the only one of its kind in the southern hemisphere. It was played by what would best be classified as a reluctant organist. In this case a very reluctant organist. Two of the locals sitting in front of me commented on the quality of the music performance.
Did anything distract you?
Being a visitor to the parish, I was distracted by the historical aspects of the building. I had attended a local Masonic function on the previous evening and was heartened to see that the main window, depicting St Thomas, included a square and compasses, perhaps the single most identifiable symbol of Freemasonry.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The service was efficient evangelical style the clergy wore robes.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
6 – The startling high pulpit would have provided any preacher with a case of vertigo. The sermon did not follow the readings for the day, but instead was based on material found in the popular series known as the Samuel Bible Studies. I felt that the preacher dwelt too heavily on fear – fear that if we do not undertake some immediate action in our lives, the consequence will be disaster.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The faithfulness of God's servants.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Getting a hug at the door from the welcomer – this was the first time that I have experienced such joy. Whilst confronting, it nevertheless gave me the sense of being very welcome in the church.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Reading the newsletter and seeing that there had been "satanic desecration" in the cemetery and church grounds. I query the use of the term "satanic" and was really embarrassed that a church would dwell upon this fear.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
A little bit of a chat from the preacher and a couple of the parishioners.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Absolutely no invitation to have a cup of coffee, no announcement that coffee was available. I ended up at the local McDonalds with a breakfast muffin and a glass of orange juice.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
2 – I think I'd be better off as a closet Anglican in the Catholic parish across the road than a member of this congregation. It was just not my cup of tea. Good on them if they can find people who like to have fear preached to them.
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 wonderful east window of St Thomas with the square and compasses.