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Home > Culture and Society

Worshipping in mysterious ways

22 March 2005

Those goodly upstarts at Ship of Fools, the online 'magazine of Christian unrest', are at it again, trying desperately, diligently, this time maybe even successfully, partially, to yank Christianity into the 21st Century. A couple of summers ago they came up with The Ark, 'the world's first internet reality gameshow'. This was followed up last summer with The Church of Fools, 'the UK's first web-based 3D church', the graphics of which were reminiscent of those quaint Virtual Reality helmets in the 80s, but with praying, and without the helmet. This year however, they have hit pray-dirt.

Mystery Worshipping is nothing new at Ship of Fools. Taking their cue from 'mystery shoppers' - people paid to go shopping-cum-spying, then write a report on all aspects of the service they received - Shipmates have been undercover worshipping now for seven years. Punters simply go to a church, check out the product, then fill in a detailed questionnaire designed to rate the overall performance of God's ministers. Questions range from 'Did anyone welcome you personally?' and 'Was your pew comfortable?' to 'Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?' and 'How would you describe the after-service coffee?' You can read these reports online. If you have a mind to. From a curious, secular, non-cynical, pseudo-sociological point of view, they're rather fascinating.

Here are a few snippets from various churches across the globe:


- I shook hands with a few people, who clearly didn't want to enter into conversation. I was then left to stand looking stupid and embarrassed for some considerable time... The worship leader was wearing the kind of top that a lady of her size should steer clear of.

- There was a song about all the nations of the earth praising God and I looked around to see at least six differen nationalities singing and praising God. I thought, this is really beautiful.

- Nothing in the service itself was hellish, but seeing several people who were obviously ill begging in the street and on the subway was very painful. One beggar had a prescription for cancer medication and was requesting help in order to obtain his medicine.

- No coffee. No donuts. The Diocese of Brooklyn seems to have an unofficial policy against such wicked, Protestant practices.

- Midway through the service we were asked to greet and give a blessing to the person in the next seat. This was a very personal and moving experience, and much less awkward than 'the peace of the Lord' can sometimes be.

- [After the service] I was invited to coffee and Danish in the rear of the nave.
There you have it. Church. But this year Ship of Fools are taking the concept one step further. To wit, on Sunday April 24th, they're holding the world's first citywide mass Mystery Worshipper spectacular across London. This from their site: 'On that day, Mystery Worshippers will sit in the back pews of churches in central and greater London and report back on how it was for them. All the reports will be published simultaneously, two weeks later [providing] a unique snapshot of what church was like in London over one 24-hour period.'

Then, presumably, the idea is that they can use the information received to find out exactly what's wrong with the church and put it right. Sadly, this may come down to ditching the whole religion element, because the rest of it - the bigging up of brotherly and sisterly love, the community vibe, the potentially visionary wooziness brought about by excessive chorusing, the illicit Danish in the nave - all of that is spot-on; nothing that can't perhaps be bettered in the pub on a Sunday night, but an excellent diversion nonetheless. It's just a shame that joyless God mother has to ruin it all really.

All Ship of Fools need to do now of course, is to secretly change the date to the week after, to spite all the Songs of Praise-style one-off pomptaculars laid on by devious clerics.

If you've read this far, you might not think it, but you probably have it in you to join the slippery swelling ranks of the Mystery Worshippers. All denominations are welcome by Ship of Fools, including Atheists. So. Let's go to church.


If on the other hand you can imagine nothing more stultifyingly dull and alien to your nature, by all means stay in bed and nurse your booze-slut shame.

But don't come crying to us when you're in hell.



Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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