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43: St Aldate's, Oxford, England
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St Aldates Oxford
Mystery Worshipper: Uncle Tom Cobbley.
The church: St Aldate's, Oxford, England.
Denomination: Church of England.
The building: Large medieval church with good heating and an excellent sound system (apart from a loud hum from an earth loop).
The neighbourhood: The church is in Oxford town centre, next to Pembroke College and opposite Christ Church Cathedral Church.
The cast: The leader of the church was an attractive, well-spoken young lady in pink jumper and black dress. I haven't a clue who she was, as she did not introduce herself. The preacher was not introduced, but I guessed from the dog collar and his lapel badge which I glimpsed after the service that it was the Rector, David Macinnes. The Holy Communion part of the service was led by a young curate who was also not introduced!
What was the name of the service?
Family Service and Holy Communion.

How full was the building?
Packed solid – 300, including children.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
At the entrance, two people welcomed me with a 'hello'. When I sat down, no one came near my pew until the church became too full for people to sit anywhere else – but still no one spoke to me. Part way through the service, we were encouraged to greet someone we didn't know, and the person next to me then introduced himself as D—, a full-time lay assistant who had recently been a student and was now working for the church. He asked where I was from and why I was in Oxford.

Was your pew comfortable?
Reasonable – I've known far worse!

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Twenty minutes before the service, it was quiet. Ten minutes before and it was very noisy with people chattering (some about last night's party!) Good sense of anticipation, though.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
'Good morning and welcome to the family service.'

What books did the congregation use during the service?
None. Although NIV Bibles and 'Songs of Fellowship' hymn books were in the pews, all the words of the hymns and songs, and all the congregational parts of the liturgy, were on overhead screens.

What musical instruments were played?
Keyboard, guitar, bass guitar, trumpet and drums.

Did anything distract you?
The obtrusive hum on the sound system caused by an earth loop.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Very lively and informal – very 'family service'. Although the children were frequently acknowledged and spoken to, they played little part in the service except for coming out and doing actions to a couple of songs. It would have felt much more like a family service if the children had (for example) led some prayers, read a Bible reading, collected the offertory, and given out the notice sheets at the beginning of the service.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
18 minutes – long for a family service talk, but it seemed to keep the attention of most people.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
We were all given a piece of string and encouraged to tie four knots in it so that we could remember God's four 'nots': forget not, fear not, fret not and faint not (with relevant Bible verses, which we had to repeat after the preacher).

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Just after taking the bread and wine and returning to my seat, I had a tremendous sense of the presence of the Lord while we sang, 'I believe in Jesus'.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Having to stand up when the visitors were told to stand up – and then being completely ignored after the service!

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Not a lot! D—, the lay assistant sitting next to me, said, 'Nice to meet you,' and rushed off somewhere. No one spoke to me at all after that, even though I hung around looking lost for about 15 minutes. One or two students pushed past me to get to the church's student lunch. I hunted around for a St Aldate's church guide, but no one came to my rescue. They were all earnestly talking or laughing with each other, but I felt like the invisible man.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Non-existent. I couldn't find coffee or tea anywhere, and I was pretty thirsty after a service lasting 1 hour and 25 minutes! At the end of the service, the congregation were told to enjoy their lunch, and the students were told where to go to get their special student lunches – but there were no after-service refreshments that I found.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
On the whole, yes. But if I'd been feeling really down or at the end of my tether, I think I'd have gone out feeling even worse. There was a very brief encouragement right at the end to those who were feeling like giving up, that they should hang on in there with Jesus, but it was a shame there was no offer of prayer ministry or even someone to talk to after the service.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
A testimony from a student near the beginning of the service. He told us how he was once working at a large house, cutting the grass, when he drove the mower straight through the owners' greenhouse. He went in fear and trepidation to tell them, but they smiled at what he had done, forgave him and still paid him. He concluded that God is like that in his willingness to forgive us when we confess.
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