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1925: Victoria Methodist, Bristol, England
Victoria Methodist, Bristol, England
Mystery Worshipper: Leo.
The church: Victoria Methodist ("VicMeth"), Bristol, England.
Denomination: Methodist Church of Great Britain.
The building: This listed building was built in the 1860s to serve the affluent suburb of Clifton, whose population had increased five-fold in the previous 60 years. Having built chapels in the poor areas, the Methodists decided it was time to serve the wealthy. The interior was altered in the 1960s, stripping away the typical non-conformist high pulpit dwarfing a small communion table and removing the front pews to allow a spacious square island communion area where people could gather on all sides to receive communion as individuals conscious of the wider community.
The church: This used to be a flourishing church with a large membership; indeed, there was another Methodist church only three blocks up the road to accommodate people. It has had many illustrious ministers who have gone on to senior posts. However, some of its congregation are too nostalgic. A friend of mine who used to worship there told me that some of the older people expect preaching of a high intellectual calibre because some previous ministers had PhDs and wrote theological books; new ministers are compared, somewhat unfavourably, with them. They have all the usual Methodist meetings: Women's Fellowship, Bible study, prayer group, women's night (what about the men?), house groups, Enjoying Art group, Rambling group plus MethSoc for students.
The neighbourhood: The church is at the top of Park Street, which has several nightclubs and Bristol's West End expensive shops. It is next to an art gallery and opposite the university's music department and concert hall. The surrounding large houses used to be for those who could afford servants. Now, largely, they are student flats.
The cast: Mrs Pam Roberts (who stepped in at short notice because the minister was ill).
The date & time: Palm Sunday, 28 March 2010, 6.30pm.

What was the name of the service?
Evening Worship.

How full was the building?
In a building that can seat 350 people, there were 14 of us, gathered in the choir stalls. I was told that the morning service attracts about 60 people.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes. Someone handed me some hymn books and asked me if I would like to take a palm cross (which was good because the church I attended this morning ran out of them so I gave mine to a child). Then the steward directed me to the choir stalls at the end of the building.

Was your pew comfortable?
Plenty of leg room and a padded seat. Also plenty of kneeling room, though I don't think Methodists do much kneeling.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Silent. This was very pleasing as I hate the noisy gossip that has become common in many churches.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good evening and welcome to Victoria Methodist for our evening service."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
Hymns and Psalms plus the supplement New Hymns and Worship Songs.

What musical instruments were played?
A piano. Pre-recorded harpsichord music came over the sound system before the service started.

Did anything distract you?
My own wandering thoughts, looking around this large empty building and imagining it full as in its glory days. Also, I distracted everyone else by singing the chorus of "All glory, laud and honour" as a chorus before realising that the hymn book had flattened it by using the tune for the ordinary verses.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
A quiet and meditative hymn sandwich. Two people in the congregation read some of the meditation and, despite their being no more than two feet away from me, I had to strain to hear.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
15 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
4 – To be fair, Mrs Roberts had been asked at short notice. But she tended to fidget, rearranging books on the lectern and pausing, not for dramatic effect so much as being uncertain what to do next. Sadly, the sound system wasn't very good (indeed, I gather that audibility has been a problem ever since the place was built).

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
It was a meditation that interspersed Luke's passion narrative with verses from the psalms and reflections from people today, such as: "Would I have followed the crowd in demanding Jesus's death?"

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
I was pleased when the steward read a piece by the American Episcopal priest and prolific writer Father Robert Capon. At this time of the year, we tend to be told that the Jews didn't understand, that they had the wrong expectations of the Messiah. However, this passage was aimed at Christians and how we often think we have to earn Jesus' love by being well-behaved. The passage spoke of religious sweatshops.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Well, I was bored. There didn't seem to be any element of transcendence in the service. We were told that we would "need" our palm crosses, yet all that happened is that people held them as they sang "Lift high the Cross." We could have raised the palm crosses but didn't. I was also irked by "The servant king" as anything written by Graham Kendrick irks me. The scansion is poor: the last line of each verse has to fit in six, seven or eight syllables. I was surprised that members of the congregation were invited to suggest their favourite hymns. It felt like a religious version of a club for senior citizens – what in England are called Darby and Joan clubs – where seniors get to sit around a piano and sing their favourite songs.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
An older man in a suit asked me if I was visiting and invited me to look around the building. Then we discussed our hopes for church unity, given that Methodists and Anglicans are in a covenanted relationship, albeit one that doesn't show many fruits at present. I have to say that this conversation was the best part of the experience. It cheered me up and I would have left feeling quite depressed had it not taken place.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
2 – It felt like it was on the edge of terminal decline. Where is its sense of mission to the surrounding nightclubs and shops? However, we were told that, owing to the illness of the minister, this would an unusual service. A visit to a morning service might make me change my mind.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
No, just bored.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The palm cross, which is now in my kitchen, and the older man in the suit.
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