Thou shalt not... bore thy congregation

First it was Kim and Aggie, then The Dinner Party Inspectors. Now, a group of worshippers have gone undercover to pass judgement on our church services. Is nothing sacred?
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The Independent Online

It's Sunday morning at All Saints church, Haggerston, and the vicar, the Rev Rose Hudson-Wilkin, is mid-sermon. God's not interested in what you say, she tells her East London congregation, but in what you do - and especially in what you do when you think no one else is looking. She quotes Luke 14: "For whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted."

The sea of heads in front of her, some wearing their Sunday hats, nod in agreement. But for one worshipper - in the fourth pew from the back, second from the right - the sermon has particular force: she's wondering if God would approve of what she's doing right now. She is a "church inspector" in the house of God, a mystery worshipper who is taking notes and will publish her verdict on today's service on the internet.

The concept of the mystery worshipper has been devised by the Christian website, Ship of Fools, as an ecclesiastical spin on mystery shoppers. While the Church of England is preoccupied with discussions about whether anyone other than a heterosexual man should become a bishop, the Ship of Fools assesses the clergy on a more consumer-driven basis.

Today, the Church of England will publish a report setting out the parameters for the debate on whether women should become bishops. But mystery worshippers are not interested in a priest's sex or sexuality: they want to know if he or she is any good in the pulpit. Hudson-Wilkin's church will be assessed on criteria including the comfort of the pews, the length of the sermon and the standard of the after-service beverages. Today's mystery worshipper, a student known only by her pseudonym, The Church Mouse, will also report on whether the service made her glad to be a Christian - the all-important feel-good factor.

For a religion that stresses the importance of humility, it's a departure. The motto of the mystery worshippers is not so much "the last shall be first" (Matthew 20:16) as "the last person to complain about the comfort of the pews clearly has no idea that Britain is now in the Conran age". Ship of Fools stresses that the mystery worshippers' reports are impressionistic rather than scientific - a subjective snapshot of each church at a particular moment in time. But the fact remains that the churchgoer is turning consumer; no longer will he accept a preacher who sends his mind to sleep and a pew that does the same to his bottom.

Over the last six years, more than 600 mystery worshippers have produced almost 900 reports on churches in places as far-flung as Belfast, Brisbane and Beit Sahour in the Palestinian Territories. No denomination escapes the scrutiny of the Ship of Fools: Greek Orthodox, Baptist, Church of England, Methodist, Episcopal, Pentecostal and Lutheran are among those examined, usually by reporters from other religious traditions. Many churches are revealed as credits to their faith. A Greek Orthodox church in Oxford scored highly for its "heartfelt, emotional and emotive worship", even though the reporter couldn't understand the majority of the service and there were no pews or sermon.

However, some institutions have fared less well. A Methodist church in Devon was recently told that it "should be ashamed of itself", after it failed to display any Christian warmth. The undercover worshipper on this mission, known as William Booth, stood at the back of the church when the service ended, looking lost (as instructed by his masters at Ship of Fools), but was ignored by everyone. "I'm 6ft 4in tall and rather wide, so I am instantly recognisable as a visitor," he writes. "I even made eye contact with people as they went past so I know they saw me. But not one person even said hello. I have never been to a church that made such little effort to welcome visitors."

Simon Jenkins, the editor of Ship of Fools, confirms that, in 60 per cent of cases when the mystery worshipper hangs around looking awkward after the service, no one speaks to them. Some clergy may find this public censure hard to take, but Jenkins believes that the church needs be criticised, especially from within, to ensure its future.

"There's been an enormous amount of criticism from outside the church - some of it justified, some not," says the lifelong Christian, who runs the website in his spare time. "But Christians aren't criticising themselves. The Pope has yet to apologise for various things, such as the blind eye turned by the wartime Pope, Pius XII, to the Holocaust. "We think it's important to acknowledge that our faith is a flawed faith and that we're all very imperfect at practising it, and that's why the crusades and the inquisition and all sorts of horrible things have gone wrong," he says.

Canon Richard Franklin, the vicar of Holy Trinity in Weymouth, is one clergyman who can take the criticism. He received a visit from a mystery worshipper, known as Leo, early this year. The report was not glowing. While the church was praised for its "simple and beautifully understated" ceremonial, it was censured for its lack of welcome: "Nobody came up to me at all," says Leo. "This church was always criticised as being too cliquey - no change there, then." (Leo had been a regular communicant at Holy Trinity 30 years earlier, and so knew its reputation.)

Other priests might have bridled at the insult, but not Canon Franklin. He read the mystery worshipper's comments out from the pulpit the following Sunday.

"Mystery worshippers will all have a bit of slant," he says. "But it was useful for me to be able to cite somebody else saying things that I think from time to time." His parishioners responded to the call. "During the following weeks, visitors were surrounded by people, unable to get away from the deluge of friendship," says Canon Franklin. And their enthusiasm has lasted. When the mystery worshipper returned to the church several months later, he noticed a distinct change in the atmosphere.

However, religious leaders aren't yet wholly convinced about the efficacy of the mystery worshipper, although the Methodist Church of Great Britain describes it as a "grand idea" and the Baptist Union of Great Britain says that it "can be very valuable". Steve Jenkins (no relation to Simon), head of media relations at the Church of England, is also cautiously positive: "I'm sure some people might feel a bit miffed if their service was written up without them knowing," he says, "but then it keeps people on their toes. So, no problems there." But no denomination has plans to adopt the practise - nor to introduce "Ofsted-style" inspections, which was suggested by the Bishop of Reading, the Right Rev Stephen Cottrell, in June.

The Church of England currently has no centralised procedures to weed out failing clergy. Instead, it relies on the vigilance of its bishops, archdeacons and parishioners to spot and solve problems.

If all else fails, the parish can claim "pastoral breakdown" with its priest and ask its bishop to step in. Jenkins also points out that priests are not imposed on parishes: when a vacancy comes up, the parochial parish council interviews and can reject any prospective clergymen.

But for some Christians, that's not enough. One mystery worshipper, who goes by the name Sagacious, says: "I think my own church could really benefit from a mystery worshipper's report. Sometimes, when you're personally involved, you don't see problems. You need an independent view of your church." She has reviewed three houses of worship for the Ship of Fools: a drive-in church, a seamen's church (which uses a binnacle as its baptismal font) and the Christ is the Answer Family Church in Barbados.

She has never been outed as a mystery worshipper, although two weeks ago she had a few problems while trying to make covert notes. "Two lovely ladies completely took me under their wing and sandwiched me between them. I couldn't write anything down and I was frantically trying to remember everything," she says.

Back at All Saints, Haggerston, Hudson-Wilkin has no difficulty recognising the stranger among her 50-odd strong congregation. She greets the mystery worshipper, The Church Mouse, personally and asks her to stand up and tell the other worshippers her name. After the service, she gives her a hug and asks her if she's coming back.

In fact, All Saints, which has a sister church, Holy Trinity, Dalston, scores highly in almost all areas. It only falls down on its extremely hard and downward-sloping pews, the fire-cracker that goes off outside the church during the sermon and the chattering during the Bible readings. However, the church is clearly in the middle of a crisis on the morning that the The Church Mouse decides to visit. Water has been pouring in through the roof and Hudson-Wilkin's husband has had to cover the organ with tarpaulin to protect it.

At the end of the service, the congregation is asked to donate money to help keep the church standing. "And I don't want to see any 2p coins in the envelopes," says Hudson-Wilkin, fixing her parishioners with a stern look. "That doesn't even cover the cost of the envelopes. And if you do not hand back your envelopes, I will have to assume that you have rolled over and died - that you have accepted that there will be only one church in this parish." It's strong stuff, and The Church Mouse suspects that this may be only the latest episode in a long-running saga. She's absolutely right. The church roof has been in trouble for at least four years. The fundraising effort to save it was kick-started by Hudson-Wilkin when she staged a roof-top protest for 24 hours. "I'd gone into the church that morning and it looked as though there was a river running through it," she says. The protest raised a lot of money, as did the parachute jump that she undertook recently. But there is still a long way to go - hence the need for the envelopes.

Hudson-Wilkin laughs for 20 seconds after being told that she has been mystery worshipped. "Aaaaargh. What did we sing? What did I preach? I hope I didn't say anything too outrageous," says the vicar, who has been at the parish for six years. She clearly has far more important things to worry about than being mystery worshipped. But Hudson-Wilkin's is quick to embrace the report's criticisms. She's been trying to discourage people from chattering during the service - and she agrees about the pews. She'd love to have comfy chairs for her congregation. It's part of her long-term plan - but first she's got to sort out the roof.