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3105: St Michael & All Angels, Melksham, England
St Michael & All Angels, Melksham
Mystery Worshipper: Hephzibah.
The church: St Michael & All Angels, Melksham, Wiltshire, England.
Denomination: Church of England, Diocese of Salisbury.
The building: Originally St Michael's was a Norman church; the oldest parts of it are believed to date from 1130. Like many churches of this age, it has been rebuilt, renovated and extended over the centuries and is now a mixture of different styles. It is built of pinkish-grey stone with a large square tower. It is set in a churchyard littered with tombs and gravestones and overshadowed by several dark yew trees. Above the doorway to the porch, in a stone niche, is a statue of St Michael vanquishing a huge serpent. Inside it feels light, spacious and warm. There is a striking and colourful mural of the Transfiguration on the wall above and around the chancel arch.
The church: They are a part of the Melksham Team Ministry along with two other churches, St Andrew's and St Barnabas'. St Michael's is the main church of the three. According to their website, they "seek to share God's love and extend a welcome to the people of our Town in a way that meets their needs." They have a pastoral care ministry as well as home groups. Each year they sponsor a weekend trip to the Brunel Manor Christian Holiday & Conference Centre.
The neighbourhood: Melksham is an unprepossessing town located on the River Avon about ten miles east of Bath. The church is situated just off a little square of attractive quaint cottages in a variety of styles – an unexpected pleasure on the walk to the church.
The cast: The Revd Barry Blackford, team rector.
The date & time: Fourth Sunday of Advent, 18 December 2016, 10.15am.

What was the name of the service?
Crib Service.

How full was the building?
It was mostly full – every pew had someone sitting in it but it did not feel as if we were packed in. I found an empty pew near the back and no one came to sit next to me.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
No one really welcomed me personally. Someone by the door gave me a notice sheet as I came in.

Was your pew comfortable?
It was a wooden pew with no cushions or seat pads. It was rather hard and would have become uncomfortable if I had sat there for much longer.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Noisy, chatty, busy. The music group were singing a modern carol and lots of people were wandering around talking to each other.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Welcome, everybody, welcome to our service."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
The only book used was The Holy Bible, New International Version, which was referred to when the New Testament reading was announced. Much of the service was displayed on a screen at the front so service books were not needed.

What musical instruments were played?
Electronic organ that doubled as a piano; drums.

Did anything distract you?
There were one or two small children wandering around throughout the service, followed by their parent/carer – to be expected at a crib service.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The worship was led by a music group of three female singers plus the organ/piano and a drummer. I would describe it as informal, lively and relaxed. The Christmas story was told throughout the service, interspersed with carols, a dramatic rendering of the nativity, the building of the crib, a short video clip, readings and prayers. The drummer enthusiastically accompanied a couple of the modern calypso type carols in an extraordinary percussive style that I have never heard before. It put me in mind of the scene in the Disney cartoon Tarzan where they use pots and pans and other cooking utensils to accompany a song.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
There wasn't really a sermon as such.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The drama began with an audio recording of someone singing "The Angel Gabriel from Heaven Came" – one of my favourite carols and sung beautifully.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The service was over-long and came across as chaotic and disorganised. I felt they had tried to include too many different bits and that it had been thrown together hastily without much thought about the overall structure and timing. There were lots of unnecessary pauses. I found my attention wandering after about 45 minutes. I felt that the children were also displaying signs of boredom by that stage.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I stood alone near some people for about five minutes with my cup of coffee. Just as I was about to ditch the coffee and leave, a couple who had been standing next to me approached and started up a conversation. I felt they were both shy people but clearly felt they should make the effort to welcome a stranger, and I appreciated it. We chatted for a few minutes before I made my excuses and left.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Weak instant coffee in a polystyrene cup, just about drinkable. There were biscuits, mince pies and small pieces of Stollen (German Christmas fruit bread), which I enjoyed.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
4 – I think this church would be too relaxed and informal for me, and there was little evidence of the strong preaching which for me is an essential requirement.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Not really, but I appreciated the opportunity to re-visit the Christmas story and ponder once more on its meaning.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The warmth of the church – physically – they have obviously managed to get their heating right. A very unusual experience in an old church in the winter.
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