St Mary the Virgin, Ambleside, Cumbria, England

St Mary the Virgin, Ambleside, Cumbria, England


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Mystery Worshipper: Fingerdoughnut
Church: St Mary the Virgin
Location: Ambleside, Cumbria, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 10 August 2008, 11:00am

The building

The first thing that strikes you about the skyline of Ambleside is the spire of St Mary's, dominating this beautiful, bustling tourist trap. As a monument to the glory of God it is quite breathtaking. It is the perfect compass reference, visible for miles from the fells that surround the village. At night it is floodlit until midnight, a useful reminder that you really should be in bed. The church was built by the Victorian architect Sir George Gilbert Scott in 1854 just as Ambleside was beginning its tourist boom. It is constructed from local slate which gives it that worn, rugged look that speaks of the eternal. Deliciously atmospheric. Inside, there is a strikingly beautiful reredos, a gilt triptych of the Cross flanked by lamb and eagle.

The church

There were a good spread of ages and a strong sense of family and community. The church buildings and notice-boards present well, indicating an involved congregation and genuine hospitality. I note they had a week of mission in July which seems to have been intelligently thought out, with apologetic debates on the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, etc., led by local bishops. They have an active and well organised fair-trade group. There is a strong ecumenical work in Ambleside. A few years ago the Methodists sold their building to launch a joint-venture with St Mary's; together they built a remarkable parish centre to serve both churches and the local community. The Methodists use it as their place of worship.

The neighborhood

Ambleside is a popular tourist attraction in England's Lake District. It sits at the head of Windermere, England's largest natural lake. In the nearby village of Rydal is the house where poet William Wordsworth lived for most of his life. The house is open to the public but remains in the Wordsworth family to this day. St Mary's is quite central to the village, set in a beautiful, expansive churchyard surrounded by parkland, a campsite, recreation ground, and extortionately expensive car-park. There is quite a buzz to the place and it is well placed for outreach.

The cast

The Revd Canon Robert Coke, vicar, and a very young and very nervous clergyman introduced only as Paul. He may have been the Revd Paul Woodcock, associate priest, but it's also possible that he was a visiting Methodist minister. The service had been billed as a unified service, and the Revd Paul was wearing a dark blue clerical shirt, as some Methodist ministers do.

What was the name of the service?

United All Age Worship with the Methodists (including the baptism of "A")

How full was the building?

About two-thirds full, at least 200 people, probably bulked out by A's family and friends.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

A sign outside the porch read: "A warm welcome to you. Please come and enjoy the beauty and peace of this much loved church." Unfortunately the middle-aged lady at the door completely ignored me, even though I said hello to her. To be fair, I was almost late and the vicar had just started to speak. But still...

Was your pew comfortable?

Stupid question – "comfortable pew" is an oxymoron. Most pews seemed bare but ones towards the front had some individual cushions to perch on. However, the foam in them was too soft and thin to be of any use; I sat on a stack of three and still got second-degree numb-bum.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Almost missed it because I didn't know Ambleside on a Sunday morning would be like Piccadilly Circus on a Saturday night. It would have been nice to know that the church opens up its churchyard to worshippers for free parking instead of having to pay 3.60 for the privilege just the other side of the hedge. Anyway, the pre-service atmosphere was excited and lively with plenty of chat and kids squealing.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Good morning and a special welcome to all our visitors."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

An A5 pamphlet contained the entire order of service, including songs, except for the opening and closing hymns which were from Mission Praise. The Holy Bible, New International Version was the pew Bible. Words to both hymns and songs were also projected onto a screen at the front of the church.

What musical instruments were played?

Church organ for hymns. Songs were accompanied by an electronic keyboard, two flautists, acoustic guitar and up to four singers. The Revd Paul also played a trumpet. The PA was excellent, with the sound-desk discretely and tastefully enclosed at the back of the church.

Did anything distract you?

Several things. (1) When I sat down I noticed that the pews were lettered and numbered in cinema fashion. I though that maybe it was a "cafe-style" church and we were in for popcorn and hotdogs. I was disappointed, though, and later learned that it's because the church is hosting a series of classical music concerts as part of the Lake District Summer Music Festival. (2) Canon Coke's accent also kept me guessing throughout the service. While he is a white, middle-aged gent, his accent sounded curiously Jamaican. By the end I decided that maybe he was a congenital Geordie (from England's Tyneside region), sent to public school where his English master didn't quite manage to get the received pronunciation to stick. (3) The PC used to project the words crashed just before the first song, so we had the boot-up screens flashing away as we sang. We were into the second song before normal service was resumed.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

Middle of the road. Being all-age worship, there was a mix of trad hymns and silly kids' songs. One was in an African tongue: Siyahamb' ekukhanyeni kwenkhos repeated over and over. The Revd Paul sang it through himself first and received a round of applause when he managed it without a tongue-hernia. The congregation joined in gamely and enjoyed the farce of it all. When we sang the classic Sunday school song "Wide, wide as the ocean", we were encouraged to fling our arms out vigorously on the word "wide", as do the Sunday school children, and not be afraid to hit our neighbours in the face with the backs of our hands. This was a bit ripe given that it was directly after the exchange of peace. Surprisingly, nearly everyone joined in with great gusto. Finally, it would be terribly remiss of me if I failed to mention the gospel reading, Matthew 14:22-33 (Jesus walks on water and bids Peter to do likewise). This was enacted by children waving a blanket to simulate waves, with The Revd Paul as Jesus and Canon Coke as Peter. Canon Coke did a splendidly energetic job of rowing. Having watched the Olympic men's sculls the previous day, I mused that he may just have missed his true vocation. The reader paused for a long time after verse 24 (the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land) and before verse 25 (Jesus came walking toward them), explaining that he was just waiting for Peter to tire himself out. That got the biggest laugh of the service.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

11 minutes.

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

7 – The Revd Paul was pretty highly-strung but did an admirable job with a message simple enough for kids (ages eight and over – younger ones went to the back for activities) but enough substance for adults. A woman named Sally also did a splendid job of crafts with the younger ones during the sermon. They produced an impressive puppet-montage of the text which they presented at the end and of which they were all proud as punch. I noticed that this was not immediately disposed of, but pinned up with previous week's work in the children's area. A nice touch.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Using the gospel text, the preacher made an acronym of FAITH: Fear-Assures-Impossible-Trust-Honour. At first the disciples were spooked, but Jesus assured them. Peter then did the impossible by trusting Jesus, and this ultimately led to worship. This is typical of our walk through life, alternately fearing/sinking and trusting/walking.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

There was a tremendous sense of family and community throughout the service. We all had a great deal of fun in our worship but the solemnity of the occasion, especially the baptism, was not diminished. At the baptism, the beautiful little baby wore an exquisite, classic cream gown and didn't cry at all. As Canon Coke held her, I was strongly reminded of the "father heart" of God. But I felt sorry for dad and god-dad as they looked like fishes out of water. Both wore very badly-fitted suits and dad even wore a funeral tie.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

I don't know what "hell" is in African, but Siyahamb' ekukhanyeni kwenkhos came close to it. On a more sombre note, I was struck by the predicament of A's family. It was fairly apparent that few, if any, of them were regular attendees. I felt that the family could take so much advantage of their Saviour and the close, loving community that St Mary's obviously is. But I feared that it was likely that their next appearance in the church would be A's wedding. How sad that would be.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

No chance of looking lost. Worshippers were directed to the parish centre next door for refreshments, where I was engaged in conversation immediately. Altogether I was greeted enthusiastically by at least seven people. This more than made up for the door-greeter, who must have been having a bad day. The room was bright and airy with an amazing 180 degree vista across parkland and the foot of Loughrigg Fell.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Fair-trade tea and coffee were served with supermarket milk. There were also apple and orange juice, though I couldn't see whether they were fair-trade also. Given the excellence of the facilities, I was disappointed that drinks were served in disposable cups. Worst of all was the fact that there were no biccies! Nothing, nil, nada, zip. This appalling faux-pas was partially redeemed by a cake stall outside where we purchased a rather scrummy, home-made apple pie which I had after lunch.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

7 – I'm a bit more charisgelically inclined but I wouldn't feel out of place here at all. If I were a seeker looking for a caring community, I couldn't do better than start at St Mary's.

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

Oh yes. Praise God for the communion of saints.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

Canon Coke's rowing technique.

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