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2933: St Stephen & St Alban, Prenton, Birkenhead, Wirral, England
St Stephen's, Prenton (Exterior)
Mystery Worshipper: Brother Basil.
The church: St Stephen & St Alban, Prenton, Birkenhead, Wirral, England.
Denomination: Church of England, Diocese of Chester.
The building: Red brick, circa 1910, under slate roof. Looks like a threshing barn! Internally it is Arts and Crafts, with parquet floor, pink and grey alabaster font with carvings. Nave of brick and sandstone, arcaded with pillars, banded with light sandstone and brick. Clear lancet windows throughout. Wide chancel arch leads up steps from nave into choir; worn patterned carpet with brass stair rods. Wooden choir stalls carved with angels on end posts. High altar with carved reredos depicts the evangelists. Central brass cross with delicate filigree detail. Lady chapel has reserved Sacrament.
The church: You name it, it happens here – everything from Dancing Tots to Knit and Natter, with Tuesday Ladies' Badminton in between. Unfortunately the Service Times tab on their website appears to be a dead link, but the notice sheet informed us that on the day of my visit there was a Sunday morning communion plus an evening Taizé service.
The neighbourhood: Prenton is mentioned in the Domesday Book as "priest’s home." Things are looking up for priests since those days – it seems a fairly affluent suburb with large houses in leafy tree-lined roads. Nearby is Prenton Park, the home of Tranmere Rovers football ground. I spoke to a lady who had grown up in the area and had attended St Stephen’s as a child. The old parish magazine, she said, used to be called Hill, Woods and Dell – the hill was Prenton Ridge where the big houses were; the woods were Mountwood, a local area; and the dell was Prenton Dell. She went on to describe the old lanes and byways. She said that she remembers Christmas Fairs with Father Christmas and a multiplicity of Christmas bazaar stalls. The Crowning of the Rose Queen used to take place during the summer fete (nice and pagan!) in the grounds of the old vicarage, now demolished. The new vicarage is on the site of the old vicarage's compost heap! (She laughed as she told me this.)
The cast: The Revd Wayne Lautenbach, vicar; the Revd Gordon Watts, associate priest. The vicar wore a gold and cream chasuble. Clergy were assisted by a crucifer and two acolytes in blue cassocks and white surplices. This was to be the vicar's last Sunday at St Stephen's, and the title of the service included mention of that fact (although I've omitted it below because my fingers were exhausted from typing).
The date & time: Sunday, 4 October 2015, 10.00am.

What was the name of the service?
Parade and Parish Communion for Harvest.

How full was the building?
Full to overflowing!

Did anyone welcome you personally?
“Hello” from a lady on the steps outside, battling her way in with a walking stick, past the Boy Scouts, who were gumming up the works. And “Good morning” from the sidesman handing out pew sheets.

Was your pew comfortable?
Yes. Red padded seats with padded back, with red cotton kangaroo pouch to put your books in, like the ones you find on planes. In the side aisles were old-style wooden seats. Tapestry kneelers in assorted designs; mine had a dove on it.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
A cacophony of noise: bawling babies, restless kids, distorted sound system. It seemed a bit like a cattle market – I didn’t care; I liked it! The music group were playing valiantly on, trying to drown out the bedlam. The notices were projected onto the overhead screen.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
The accent was difficult to understand at first; the vicar is from South Africa. He said, “Good morning to you all. It’s lovely to see you all here.”

What books did the congregation use during the service?
Printed order of service that included prayers and hymns, interspersed with pictures of the vicar and other folks. Pew Bible was New International Version. The hymns and prayers also appeared on the overhead projector, but it was difficult to see owing to the amount of heads in the way. The printed order of service was also available in large format.

What musical instruments were played?
Pipe organ, and contributions from the music group (keyboard and twangy guitar). Some of the hymns were the swingin’ hymns variety; where would we be without that prolific hymnsmith, Timothy Dudley-Smith? (Pun intended!)

Did anything distract you?
The whole lot was a bit distracting – from the sun burning me ("by day") through the windows in the south aisle, to a child trying to dismantle the floral arrangement. There was also a small boy who entertained himself by picking his nose and ... no, I can't say it!

St Stephen's, Prenton (Interior)

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Hard to tell, but there were plenty of candles on the altar. Possibly a bit "hands in the air," but definitely not staid, boring C of E.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
18 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – The vicar spoke from the chancel steps and walked about a bit. There was plenty of audience participation, especially from the children.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
His text was Ephesians 6:11-18 ("Put on the whole armour of God"). The church is not a social club, nor is it just for weddings and funerals. It’s the nuts and bolts: a life style, a relationship. You’ve got to be workers in the vineyard. Go out and tell others. Jesus commands our destiny. God is there. Live a good life and do as you would be done by.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Rousing music on the organ, from Pirates of the Caribbean, when the harvest gifts were presented. This was absolutely brilliant! One lady at the back was waving her stick in the air and clapping along.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Someone had parked an altar in the north aisle. A notice standing on it read: “This is not a table, it’s an altar. Do not place things on it. Thank you.” OK, I won’t. But dress it in altar cloths and candles and crucifix, and place it in a chapel, and maybe people won't mistake its purpose.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
The vicar was presented with a cheque as a leaving gift. As he gave the final blessing, he couldn’t get the words out – he was that choked. An elderly gent with a long white beard and hair asked me, “Are you coming through to the hall for refreshments?”

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
The refreshments served were of the party buffet style and included sandwiches, drinks (alcoholic and other), cakes, biscuits, crisps, salady bits, etc. I did the usual balancing act with plates and glasses whilst having my ear chewed off by all and sundry. I must admit to feeling somewhat overwhelmed by it all.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – If this is how it usually is, I would certainly spread the message about St Stephen’s and St Alban’s, Prenton, as being a worthwhile, inclusive, forward looking, caring, sharing parish. Well done, Vicar! You have taught your people and parish well and pointed them in the right direction. All the best in your future parish.

St Stephen's, Prenton (Clergy)

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The sun streaming through and illuminating the high altar and the harvest gifts all around.
 
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