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Road Churches at the Boston Tea Party, Bristol, England
|Mystery Worshipper: Leo.
The church: Whiteladies Road Churches at the Boston
Tea Party, Bristol, England.
Denomination: Ecumenical, arranged for the three free churches (Baptist, Methodist
and United Reformed) on Whiteladies Road. The minister was
from Redland Park
United Reformed Church, Clifton, Bristol.
The building: The Boston Tea Party is a
small chain of family run cafés. Their Whiteladies Road shop is
on three levels with sofas and tables. It also has tables on the
pavement when the weather is warm enough.
The church: The three free churches are at the more liberal end of the spectrum.
Redland Park is a fairly thriving church whose activities
include youth groups, children's activity days, a Developing
Discipleship group and the usual uniformed organisations.
It is also very third world focussed. They sponsor a World
Development Group and run a stall selling fairly traded
products. The other churches involved in this joint Holy Week
programme offer a similar, busy round of activities.
The neighbourhood: Whiteladies Road gets its name from the nuns who lived there
in the Middle Ages (though a long-established urban myth suggests
that it was named after the posh ladies who lived there with
their slaves, because the top of the road is known as Blackboy
Hill). It is the main arterial road running through affluent
Clifton. This part of the road is known as the Strip, after
its wine bars and cocktail lounges where the wealthier university
students hang out and make a lot of noise instead of writing
The cast: The Revd Douglas Burnett. David Fuller led the discussion group
that I was in (there were others for different groups).
The date & time: Monday in Holy Week, 29 March 2010, 7.30pm. [Editor's note:
This report was re-filed on 17 July 2011, as the draft had
been lost shortly after it was originally filed in 2010.]
What was the
name of the service?
How full was
Fairly full. I counted about 70 plus people.
welcome you personally?
No, but that isn't the way it is done. I lingered around outside
to check that I had the right place. Upon seeing a gentleman
in a clerical collar, I assumed that it was. So I queued to
buy a cup of coffee and then went to find a table. I went
around the entire place but most of the seats were taken except
at a table downstairs.
Was your pew
It was OK, as wooden chairs go, but most people were on very
How would you
describe the pre-service
Very noisy. Lots of people talking animatedly plus the sound of coffee
shooshing in those machines.
What were the exact
opening words of the service?
A musician sang "Now the green blade riseth." Then the Revd
Burnett started to talk on the microphone. But he was inaudible
above the crowd until people realised he was trying to get
their attention. The first words that I heard were "moment
What books did the congregation
use during the service?
instruments were played?
Yes. There were two women talking behind me all the way through.
Then again, they probably just came in for a coffee and found
their space taken over by this meeting.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip,
happy clappy, or what?
Informal café talk. A DVD of Rob Bell from Mars Hill
Church was used as a sermon/discussion starter. David Fuller,
my discussion group leader, had a very difficult task, as
the group was too large and the time too short. When nobody
expressed an opinion, he rushed in to tell us what he thought.
Later he asked if we agreed with an idea when we had already
said that we disagreed. However, he enabled everyone to have
their say as the time drew to a close. He gently challenged
a bad reaction from one group member toward another, and echoed
someone's use of the word for solid bodily waste to describe
how life can be sometimes. (I have always wanted to use that
and similar words in church!) He also acknowledged that the
creation stories are fairy tales to make us think. Too many
teachers and preachers don't want to risk offending anybody
by saying this.
Exactly how long was
On a scale of 1-10,
how good was the preacher?
5 – Although this score might seem a little mean, a
preacher can only work with the material he has got –
in this case an unhelpful DVD and some argumentative people.
Toward the end, he echoed somebody's observation that the
way we view life depends on whether we see our glass half
full or half empty, and said that we could see ourselves as
half failure or half successful, which is reflected in my
half score above.
In a nutshell, what
was the sermon about?
He led a discussion based on questions that were printed out
as a menu, with starter, main and pudding. But we didn't get
beyond the starter, which was: "Do we think the world is drenched
in God?" This got responses such as: "It can't be if people
are killing each other," "You certainly won't find God in
today's churches," "Yoga is OK if that's your spiritual path,"
etc. Just before the end, a gay man said that he had felt
unwelcome in charismatic churches – indeed that he had
experienced downright hostility. I wish there had been more
time to pursue this.
Which part of the service
was like being in heaven?
A woman led a secular-ish meditation accompanied by the guitar.
She asked up to imagine a garden where we could lay down all
our burdens and eat delicious fruit. Although God was mentioned
now and then, it was something that seekers and people of
no faith could appreciate and was a good introduction to Ignatian
And which part
was like being in... er... the other place?
There was only one laptop to view for three tables' worth
of people, and we were told that we had to get really close
to hear. However, there wasn't enough room for that so I found
it difficult to follow. Also, Rob Bell on the DVD was throwing
out far too many ideas. He was planting two trees while asking
questions about: Where is God? What's the purpose of life?
Is there life after death? Is this world just a waiting room
for the next, where God promises a new heaven and a new earth?
I was irritated when he wrongly called the last book in the
when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Several of us who had been sitting at my table continued our discussion.
How would you
describe the after-service
Cheap and nasty – but that's my fault for being penny-pinching
rather than buying a latte or a cappuccino.
How would you
feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 =
5 – Unlike the people this church is trying to reach, I am more
at home in "stale" expressions of church than "fresh." But I love a
good theological argument and would probably enjoy the cut and thrust
and challenge. I certainly welcome the mix of classical spirituality
with an evangelicalism that isn't fundamentalist or plugging dodgy
atonement teaching like penal substitution.
Did the service
make you feel glad to be a
Yes, especially that we come with different worship styles and that it
is OK to take risks and do things differently.
What one thing
will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
That evangelism doesn't have to be pushy or inerrantist.
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