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  1425: St Columba's, Anfield, Liverpool, England

St Columba's, Anfield, Liverpool

Mystery Worshipper: Strange Pilgrim.
The church: St Columba's, Pinehurst Road, Anfield, Liverpool, England.
Denomination: Church of England.
The building: St Columba's dates from 1931 and is reminiscent of many Art Deco suburban cinemas built at that time up and down the country. John Betjeman would have hated it and would have called it jazz-modern. Features of both the original design and later re-ordering sound bizarre when described but are less so in reality. The centrally-placed lectern is faced with mirror glass, and the nave altar is more cocktail-bar than IKEA table. A large reredos by the prominent muralist Mary Adshead, rescued from another church now demolished, was placed against the east wall in 2001. It is beautiful in itself but rather clashes with the rest of the sanctuary. Despite these and other Art Deco touches, the building nevertheless is recognisably a church and is well-suited to liturgical worship. There is a well-equipped hall and community centre adjoining.
The church: St Columba's is one of a cluster of Anglo-Catholic churches to the east of Liverpool city centre, in what is otherwise a predominantly evangelical diocese. The congregation seem fairly representative of the local area. Well-kept noticeboards suggest a community proud of its church and active both in worship and outreach.
The neighbourhood: Anfield is an inner suburb of Liverpool, encompassing that other shrine Liverpool Football Club, which is not far away. Nearest the church is a new development of neat but modest semi-detached houses; otherwise the housing is a mixture of late 19th century terraces and between-the-wars semis, with a few flats. There is a large primary school and a row of shops nearby.
The cast: Three clergy were named in the bulletin, but only one was present. By the process of elimination I presumed that to be the Revd Ken Miller, assistant priest. The lessons and prayers were read by robed laypersons whose names were not given.
The date & time: Fifth Sunday in Lent, 25 March 2007, 10.30am.

What was the name of the service?
Parish Mass.

How full was the building?
About one-third full, possibly 40 or so people. Hints were dropped that this was fewer than usual, probably because of the change to British Summer Time. In particular there were few children or young people, which was strange as it seemed a child-friendly sort of church. Otherwise there was a fair mix of ages and a reasonable number of men.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
A lady handed Mrs Pilgrim and myself service papers and a hymn-book with a warm smile and (thankfully) little chat. The sharing of the peace was friendly without being a free-for-all gossip session.

Was your pew comfortable?
Standard church chairs linked together. My chair was fine for sitting, but too close to the row behind for comfortable kneeling.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
A generally quiet and prayerful atmosphere, with a little discreet chat here and there. This was interrupted just before the start of the service when the priest emerged in alb and stole and gave out the notices. Presumably the congregation has decided that this is the least intrusive place, but while not quite hellish I found it distracting. After that, silence was then kept until the first hymn.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
Celebration Hymnal for Everyone, an A4 sheet with the words for the congregational part of the service, plus another sheet with the text of the readings (New Revised Standard Version) and psalm. We were also handed the weekly bulletin and a special Holy Week leaflet.

What musical instruments were played?
The organist was on holiday so the hymns were accompanied by pre-recorded organ music played through the PA system. The congregation seemed to find it hard to adjust to the speed of this, or to a couple of unfamiliar tunes, but they gained their confidence for the last hymn "And can it be," which would have gladdened Wesley's heart.

Did anything distract you?
This must be the best-heated church in Christendom and by the end we felt we had been in a sauna. More distracting than the heat, though, was the noise of the fans which were pushing it out. Other distractions were the cocktail-bar altar and wondering which saints were being veiled from sight by the Passiontide drapes (presumably Our Lady and St Columba).

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Modern Anglo-Catholic liturgy (Common Worship Order 1) with incense. The ceremonial was neither fussy nor sloppy; priest and servers – in particular the young girls who served as thurifer and boat-bearer – seemed relaxed and at ease as if worshipping God was the most natural thing possible. The priest, however, during some of the prayers, sounded if he were addressing a class of slightly slow children rather than Almighty God.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
12 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
6 – Father Ken (if it were he) spoke without notes and stood in front of the lectern. He had a strong clear voice and I could hear him despite the noise of the heating fans, but he did not appear to be wearing a lapel microphone and I fear that those who relied on the loop system might have had difficulty. His points were clear and well set out, but the sermon seemed to consist of two disconnected halves. Nor did it relate directly to the gospel of the day (Mary anointing the feet of Jesus) or either of the other readings.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
He linked the penitential prayers at the beginning of the eucharist to the acts of repentance for the slave trade which were being held in Liverpool and elsewhere that weekend. He then turned to the theme of passion (from the common, or former, name for this Sunday) and drew out the connection between its original meaning of suffering and the popular understanding of it as love.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The warmth (in a much more than literal sense) of the worshipping community and the unpompous richness of the liturgy. The awareness that this gem of a building was serving as a focus of the life of this rather ordinary suburb. And, of course, receiving communion.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
I was confused by the many pieces of paper handed out, and only just managed to find the opening hymn in time to discover that several verses were omitted. At the eucharistic prayer, the rubric directed us to sit or kneel. The latter was agonising, but I felt the former to be inappropriate although that is what most people did. Standing would have been too conspicuous. Finally, not quite registering on the hell-ometer, though it might if I knew it was the regular practice, was the fact that the laypeople who gave the readings were vested in robes. The symbolism of stepping out of the congregation to offer these ministries was lost.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
We didn't get the chance to look lost. A lady made a beeline for us before we left our seat, and introduced herself. She was very friendly and clearly enthusiastic about her church and welcoming visitors. Father Ken also spoke to us and invited us to stay for coffee. I walked into the coffee room, but Mrs Pilgrim detoured to light a candle and most of the congregation were still lingering at the back of the church. I was left alone in the coffee room and began to feel I would be outed as the Mystery Worshipper at any moment. So when Mrs Pilgrim returned, we made our excuses and left.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Acceptable instant coffee in an earthenware mug. I assume it was fairly traded as there was a fair trade stall elsewhere in the church. It was, however, extremely hot, and I felt embarrassed standing by myself waiting for it to cool. A few biscuits were also available.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 – The combination of friendly community, Catholic liturgy and inclusive theology is right up my street. Unfortunately the church isn't, and it would be too far to travel there on a regular basis.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. The prophets of doom would have us believe that the church, particularly the Anglican Communion and even more the Anglo-Catholic tradition, are on their last legs. Yet here was a group of ordinary Christians just getting on with worshipping God and living the gospel with joy and optimism.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The genuine joy on the face of the woman who spoke to us about the church. Oh – and the heater fans.
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