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|1644: St Aldate's,
Church of England, Diocese
From the outside, St Aldate's is a large, traditional, rather
plain-looking Anglican church, its gravestones hidden behind
railings and the front itself dominated by adverts for the Alpha
course. One notable feature is its glass entrance – modern
and impressive, it sets the tone for inside, which has clearly
been the subject of recent and expensive refurbishment. Most
of the church's original features are gone; there is evidence
of a rood screen at the far end of the church, but nobody goes
down there. With pews removed, the congregation now faces (on
three sides) a space between two large pink marble pillars that
go from floor to ceiling. In this space is a stage with steps
leading up to it. The stage holds the band, the altar and the
speakers for the church's impressive sound system. Around the
stage, on the wall and pillars flanking it, are numerous TV
screens and a projector screen (more on those later). Although
one large banner hangs behind the stage (modern artwork with
a Bible verse and Oxford landscape very pretty), everything
else is extremely plain. There are even plain, calico-coloured
blinds hanging down in front of the stained glass windows. The
church is extremely well lit. Much of the church floor is carpeted,
although flagstones are visible in some areas.
There are three services each Sunday, none of which could be
called traditional. The church is very vibrant and very well
organised, with a good mix of students and families. Central
to their many activities are what they call pastorates –
gatherings of 20 or so people meeting together during the week
in houses across Oxford for food, worship, Bible study, prayer
and fun. There are also several volunteer teams, including ACT!,
which conducts outreaches to prisoners, the homeless, and others
in the community; and Fuel for the Fire, which prepares people
to serve in various aspects of the church's worship. There are
specific worship-cum-social groups for undergrads, postgrads,
teenagers and international students. At the service I attended,
several other events were plugged, including an alternative
Hallowe'en party, an action week of prayer, and a church weekend
away in early 2009.
The church is directly opposite Christ Church College and next
door to the House's smaller cousin, Pembroke. It's also a stone's
throw from another of Oxford's churches, St Ebbe's.
Charlie Cleverly, rector, and Gordon Hickson, parish vicar,
presided. Simon Ponsoby, pastor of theology, and Oli Benyon,
youth pastor, also appeared by video link (no, really). Then
there were the student pastors, Peter and Michelle Tepper, who
spoke briefly, and the band (whose names I didn't get, sorry
The date & time:
Sunday, 26 October 2008, 10.30am.
What was the name of the service?
How full was the building?
It was easily the fullest church I've ever been in. People sat
even where they couldn't possibly expect to see or hear. I can
only imagine what it must be like at Christmas and Easter! Unsurprisingly,
given its position, St Aldate's has a strong student presence,
although there were a lot of young professionals and families.
Some of the students and young people were dressed very casually,
whereas the few over-60s looked smart (jacket and tie for the
men). On the whole, people looked comfortably middle-class.
I wasn't completely sure where to sit, and eventually settled
on the third of a short row of seats, next to a pillar –
relative privacy where I thought I could scribble down notes
more or less unobserved. There was something about all that
musical kit onstage that just screamed audience participation,
and my reactionary high church tendencies sent me scuttling
away from that as quickly as possible.
Did anyone welcome you
There were two very smiley students proffering paperwork at
the door, and they shook my hand before giving me two pieces
of paper (more on those later). The other two seats on my row
had already been staked with coats, but after a few minutes
an absolutely lovely couple came and sat next to me. They were
unquestionably the best part of my church experience, and if
St Aldate's were to be congratulated on only one thing, it should
be them. I actually felt a bit guilty in their efforts to
be welcoming, the lovely woman beside me gave me (unprompted)
all the names I needed for filing my report. She was lovely,
and gave me a hug during the peace – which, rather uncharacteristically,
I didn't mind at all.
Was your pew comfortable?
St Aldate's has gone down the trendy Anglican route of ripping
out pews to make way for uniform, stripped-wood-effect chairs.
These were horrifically uncomfortable, and legroom was negligible.
But with the exception of the sermon, we spent most of the service
on our feet.
How would you describe the pre-service
It's a big city church in a university town, with equal parts
students and families, so pre-service is never going to be quiet
or peaceful. Nevertheless, I have to say that I loved it. There
was a real sense of excitement and hope, with people dashing
in out of the rain, herding in kids and exchanging greetings
with their friends. Everybody looked happy and seemed positive.
Again, due to my repressed, reactionary high church tendencies,
I initially would have felt more comfortable with the traditional
combination of silence and damp, broken only by the booming
voice of an old age pensioner whose hearing aid is on the blink.
But all that smiling was infectious, and I found myself smiling
too, actively looking forward to the start of the service.
What were the exact opening words of the
My neighbours were talking to me, and so I missed the moment
when the rector – a lovely man, with a touch of the versatile
British character actor Jim Broadbent – started to wield his
microphone above the clamour. The first thing I heard clearly
was: "Welcome to church on this cold, rainy, grey Sunday
What books did the congregation use during the
St Aldate's is beyond books. Books are not the St Aldate's way.
I mentioned the very smiley students who loaded me down with
paper on my way in. After a moment's reflection on my stint
several summers ago at a theatre company, I was reminded of
nothing so much as the leaflets with which we used to flyer
the theatre seats whenever next season's play wasn't selling
well. The leaflets asked for money, in the form of events coming
up (most of which seemed to require cash down) and in letter
form. There was a missive from rector Charlie Cleverly encouraging
people to continue tithing, even in the face of the economic
crisis. It seems that this is very popular with the St Aldate's
congregation. Everyone discreetly averts their eyes from the
collection plate, of course, but while stuffing the Mystery
Worshipper calling card into its depths, I found it easy to
bury beneath a fantasia of pink, green and blue banknotes. Clearly,
the message is getting through. I thought it was a shame, though,
that no order of service was provided. I've never been to a
church without printed readings.
What musical instruments were played?
Taped worship/Christian pop music was playing before the service.
As things got underway, a band took over consisting of keyboard,
guitars and a rather impressive drum kit. The band are, it must
be said, extremely good.
Did anything distract you?
This is a difficult question to answer. The service itself,
with all the arm-waving, eye-closing, tongue-speaking style
of spirituality that hundreds of people around me seemed genuinely
to enjoy, left me twitchy and nervous. Also, the rector looked
like Jim Broadbent. He did. And in front of me the most
beautiful couple you've ever seen kept cuddling each other and
praying in tandem (mostly with the boy apparently saying prayers
for them both). And everybody in the ministry team seemed to
be married to each other.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip,
happy clappy, or what?
So happy. So clappy. And, bizarrely, so determined to rip off
all that is dreadful in American pop music. We sang at least
six songs, all of which illustrated that – apparently – all
evangelical music has the same tune. A mawkish, sentimental
tune, more reminiscent of vintage Avril Lavigne (Canadian pop
rock/pop punk singer) than anything I'd heard before. All the
band members (British, from what I could tell) adopted nasal
US croon tones. If this service were a film, I'd accuse it of
a mawkish and grossly manipulative attempt to wring tears from
its viewers. The beamed hymn lyrics were backed by images of
rushing clouds, breaking waves and pulsing, setting suns. Or,
for variation, a montage of twinkly candles. I swear the lights
grew dimmer and brighter during the service; never mind mood
lighting. Oh, but part of the service actually was a
film, a short programme called Essentials, starring the rector
(Charlie Cleverly) and youth pastor Oli Benyon. Benyon, if not
already committed to ministry, should seriously consider auditioning
for the long-running British children's TV adventure programme
Blue Peter. Cleverly's monologue (repeating his letter on why
people should tithe) jarred. First of all, it seemed ridiculous
to be watching the man on film when he was also standing in
front of me. Secondly, if the church is in such dire need of
money, turning what are essentially parish notices into a docusoap
seems like a colossal waste of cash. But still, each to his
own. There was also a fair bit of speaking in tongues – my
lovely neighbour did it, and so did the lead singer (this was
less than helpful, as he was also leading the lyrics). Every
so often, the rector interjected to suggest we turn some piece
of sung or spoken thought into a personal prayer.
Exactly how long was the
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 Gordon Hickson is a very good preacher. His style was
relaxed and surprisingly spontaneous, given that he delivered
40 minutes of highly allusive, well-prepared preaching. The
notes he had, he barely glanced at. Regardless of your beliefs,
he's well worth hearing.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon
The overriding theme, yet again, was money and why the church
needed more of it. Key aspects of the preaching included Hickson
urging worshippers (in an echo of Cleverly's letter and broadcast)
to give more, despite and even because of the financial crisis,
based on passages from scripture. He was certainly highly persuasive,
moving from the strictly financial context to a broader consideration
of dreams and visions for revival. In other news, Hickson told
us: (1) Muslims are "blind" and need "their eyes
to be opened." (2) That piece of legislation now before
Parliament known as the Embryology
Bill must be stopped. (3) Untold numbers of Hindus within
an Indian leper colony have recently been converted to Christianity.
I must admit such old-school rhetoric on the need for conversion
and the absolute error of other faiths alarmed me.
Which part of the service was like being in
The singing of my lovely neighbours. The wife in particular
had a gorgeous contralto voice that I enjoyed following; a mercy
given the nasal tenor in which much of the music was pitched.
I must say that I also found the first half of the service intensely
moving. While objectively knowing that the music was dreadful,
I enjoyed it no end. By which I mean: I embarrassed myself by
bursting into tears, and then felt much better for it. By the
time I'd found a tissue and wiped the mascara off my chin, a
weight had been lifted that I didn't know was there. Also, the
disproportionately good-looking denizens of St Aldate's have
produced a crowd of disproportionately good-looking children.
They got up on stage and sang us a song. There were actions.
It was chaos. Everyone cheered them. It was heavenly.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
It was too slick. It was too glossy. I couldn't shake the feeling that the service I was watching was the bastard child of a tambourine and televangelism (two things I have always associated with below rather than above). The moments when the on-screen lyrics completely failed to match what we were singing reminded me of bad karaoke nights, and the occasional, total failures of the congregation to respond to Cleverly's instructions were excruciating. In the latter instance, he summoned people to the front for prayer, and only one man went.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
There was no chance to be lost. The St Aldate's crowd is exceptionally
friendly, especially when recruiting you for their impressive
range of groups, cells and pastorates. I was slightly worried
that I wouldn't be able to fulfill my hovering-time obligations
without signing up for at least six courses.
How would you describe
the after-service coffee?
Abundant! I'm not sure if the coffee was fairly traded (given
the emphasis on international affairs during the sermon, I would
imagine so), but it was plentiful, presented in paper cups with
plastic lids. There were multiple stations for biscuits and
teas. And, in what was probably the most familiar part of the
morning, knee-high St Aldate's toddlers elbowed their way to
the chocolate fingers as quickly as knee-high churchgoers elsewhere.
How would you feel about
making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 This isn't the place for scriptural or philosophical
debate, but St Aldate's views on proselytism and tithing (for
starters) would prevent it ever becoming my natural church home.
On the other hand, I could see myself popping round for an occasional
dose of un-self-conscious praising. It might just be good for
my twitchy, Catholic Lite soul.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a
Yes, in that the people were welcoming and it's always inspiring
to see a genuinely thriving, multicultural Anglican church.
No, in that I found the discussion of rescuing Muslims rather
disturbing and the sort of view which, when advanced as representative
of Christians worldwide, depresses and embarrasses me.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The positivity of those around me.
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