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2898: Penge Congregational, London
Penge Congregational, London
Mystery Worshipper: Sipech.
The church: Penge Congregational, London.
Denomination: Congregational Federation.
The building: Built in 1912 in the Romanesque Revival style, it is quite an imposing building that one can observe from some distance away as one comes down Penge High Street. Inside, the place looks more like a conformist church, with stalls for a choir and a communion table at the very front of the nave, elevated above the rest of the church. (However, its only use in this service was as a resting place for the collection plate.) There was a side chapel over to the right. Though there was no opportunity to observe it during my visit, I was assured by a church member that the roof has a tendency to leak.
The church: They had been in an interregnum for some time and had brought in ministers from outside the local congregation, which caused some church members to raise a quizzical eyebrow. The current minister, the Revd Pam Owen, is the first in some time to have come from within the congregation. They have both morning and evening worship each Sunday and, at least according to one website, a Groundbreakers Club for children. They also appear to have sponsored a craft fair at least once in the recent past.
The neighbourhood: Penge, in southeast London in the borough of Bromley, is not the most touristy part of London. It's a former village that got swallowed up by London as the city expanded. Once a fashionable entertainment venue, it is today something of the archetypal commuter suburb. There are several old Victorian almshouses that have been converted into private residences. The high street is dominated by pubs and budget stores. The most attractive feature of the area is nearby Crystal Palace Park, which hosts an athletics stadium and several large models of dinosaurs.
The cast: The service was led by Chris McShane, who also preached. A short reflection was given by the minister, the Revd Pam Owen. Several other members of the congregation chipped in with readings and prayers.
The date & time: Sunday, 2 August 2015, 10.30am.

What was the name of the service?
Morning Worship.

How full was the building?
With about 20 people present, it would be fair to say the place was fairly empty. I am led to understand that the congregation are, on the whole, quite elderly, with only about half the church members able to attend physically.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
Sort of. A few people smiled and said hello in passing, but the people who appeared to have the role of greeting people on the door were busy talking to one another as I came in. There were some books and a notice sheet on a nearby table. I wasn't sure if it would be rude simply to pick them up, so I passed by. Shortly after the service started, someone noticed I was without and passed me theirs. Chris McShane, the worship leader, came over, slightly timidly, and asked if this was my first time here.

Was your pew comfortable?
Reasonably. The pews had a wafer thin layer of cushioning and the backs were angled back slightly. They were close together though, so may present a legroom problem for the taller worshipper.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Very subdued. There wasn't a lot of activity or noise, but neither was there a prayerful silence. People just seemed to come in, find a seat and wait.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Morning, everybody. It's a lovely day."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
We read from a pew Bible, New Revised Standard version. The songs were mostly from Mission Praise, though one was projected and one was printed on the notice sheet.

What musical instruments were played?
An organ was played for about half the songs, a piano for the rest.

Did anything distract you?
The sound system wasn't well set up, so it was a little difficult to hear what was being said at times.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Very middle of the road – neither happy clappy nor liturgical. The singing wasn't overly strong, so we may have got lost in the middle of one or two songs. On the whole, it came across a little underplanned, which may put some off. Anyone used to congregational churches won’t be surprised, though, and a little disorganisation is no bad thing. I liked the fact that there was a short reflection on the opening hymn to make us think about what we had just sung.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
10 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
3 – Chris McShane read from a few sheets of paper, making very little eye contact with the congregation.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
It was meant to be based on the first half of the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-24), though due to a typo on the notice sheet, we heard John 15:11-24 (love one another; the world will hate you as it has hated me) instead. After we did read the right passage, we didn't so much get an exposition of it, as instead a paraphrase couched in modern terms. It was a parable of someone working in IT who left a good job for an exciting alternative prospect, but that business failed. She applied for a low level IT support role at her former employer's, was told she was over qualified, and was instead offered the position of IT director.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The theme of the whole service was "God's love." In an imaginative piece of worship, Chris McShane had painted a giant heart on a piece of paper and invited the congregation to come to the front and paint their own words on it to describe God's love. The large canvas was then held up for all to see. Though I refrained from joining in, it was great to see the encouragement of art as a form of worship that anyone could join in with.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
One of the songs came with "actions." I don't do songs with "actions."

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
One by one, people came over and said hello. They were all very friendly but not over-bearing. I was then invited through to another part of the building where tea and coffee were being served.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
It was OK. Served in a very small cup, there wasn't much there and it wasn't the most flavoursome, but not bad. It was compensated for by the availability of a custard cream.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
6 – As much as I liked it, I couldn't get over the impression that this was a church on the wane.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, though I can't quite put my finger on why.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The giant heart artwork.
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