Mystery Worshipper: Penfold (and Dangermouse)
Church: Wilbraham St Ninian's
Location: Chorlton-cum-Hardy, Manchester, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 7 October 2007, 10:45am
Clearly part of that great architectural age, the 1960s, the church building bears some resemblance to a small prison from the outside. The interior is mostly plain, save for a somewhat dominating stained glass window.
The congregation seems to have an average age of about 55, buoyed by only one young family that I noticed. They provide an office and venue for Chorlton Good Neighbours, a volunteer group that offers support and friendship to people who need it, especially the elderly. They are also a fair trade church. They seem to have strong ecumenical links with other churches in Chorlton. Wilbraham St Ninian's is clearly in some state of change, as we were told that a new minister would be "preaching with a view" the following week.
Chorlton is quite a pleasant, leafy district of Manchester, not far from the student haven of Fallowfield. The church is down the road from the Hindu temple and opposite a dentist's.
The service was led by the Revd Roger Tomes.
What was the name of the service?Harvest Service.
How full was the building?
The congregation was about 25 strong – approximately enough for one per pew.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
As we stepped through the gate, we were pounced on by a very enthusiastic gentleman, who came back for an extended introduction once we were seated. Minister Tomes had also shaken our hands before we made it in the door, and the overly-keen hymnbook distributors very nearly gave Dangermouse two hymnbooks. The lady who read the notices came to apologise to us personally for the omission of after-service tea on the notice sheet.
Was your pew comfortable?
It was a very square pew, of hardwood, with a thin layer of felt disguised as an attempt at comfort. But we did have the entire pew to ourselves.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
As people arrived in dribbles, the organist was playing an interesting array of jazz-lounge piano numbers on an electronic keyboard. The overall atmosphere was quiet, with some hushed conversation toward the back.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"This is the Word of God. Let us prepare to worship God in a few moments of silence."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Each pew had two copies of the Good News Bible and we were handed Rejoice and Sing, the URC hymnbook, on arrival.
What musical instruments were played?
Electronic keyboard during pre-service, but then the organist moved over to the pipe organ for the service proper.
Did anything distract you?
Dangermouse was distracted by the preacher's fabulous comb-over (although Penfold has seen better) and the three red sticks protruding from Jesus' head in the stained glass window. Penfold was distracted by the reader, who confused 2 Corinthians with 2 Chronicles.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
A collection of traditional hymns all with a harvest theme – of course including "We plough the fields." By far the quietest worship either of us has ever heard.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
5 – Revd Tomes spoke with clarity and strength, if not a great deal of passion.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
It being harvest and all, the sermon was about our biblical calling to generosity and giving to the poor. He talked particularly about their commitment to a specific project in Zimbabwe, and incorporated two of the three Bible readings into the message.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The people were friendly and relaxed, and really, really welcoming. From the great number of tins of soup per head they seem to be a pretty generous bunch too.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The sung worship was so quiet it felt like the congregation were having the slow-bike race of volume, each competing to be quieter than the person next to him.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
We were approached by several members of the congregation and had tea happily thrust upon us. The minister made a point of engaging us in conversation and getting us to complete the visitors' book.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Good, strong fair trade tea – coffee was also available. Penfold was thrilled to discover bourbon biscuits. Dangermouse was equally delighted by the rich teas. We were also informed that on occasion, homemade biscuits are supplied.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
6 – While the people were lovely, the worship was a little uninspiring. We would normally look for more folk of our age.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, as the congregation is obviously generous, socially conscious and theologically sound.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The rather unusual and slightly inappropriate jazz-lounge music pre-service. It was special.