A STRANGER is amidst our congregations, announcing his presence only by a visiting card dropped "discreetly" into the collection plate. "You have been visited by the Mystery Worshipper," says the card, though whether the Mystery Worshipper also drops a fiver in that deserving direction we have been unable to discover.

Actually there are quite a few of them, using pseudonyms like Mr Forgetful, Pew Polisher, Joe Nah and Pulsator Organorum Ineptus (which probably has an entirely innocent explanation.)

Abed-nego, as in Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego - they who were cast into a burning fiery furnace whilst still wearing their hats and came out pure as Pyrex - has been to St James the Great in Darlington.

That he should have become so exultant about what every Sunday morning they do there is really no mystery at all.

The Mystery Visitors' reports can be read on a website called Ship of Fools, devoted to church matters but not necessarily to piety.

The title is that of an early 16th century book by a German called Brant which is claimed to be the first international best seller. It's also a painting by Hieronymus Bosch.

"We are not a campaign, we are a conversation," says editor Simon Jenkins, whose other features include Gadgets for God, Signs and Blunders and Fruitcake Zone, which may be its raisin d'etre.

Regular AYS readers will know that we, too, have several times enthused about the glorious tapestry of worship at St James the Great, a coruscating cornucopia of colour, choreography and classic hymns that could almost be Sunday morning at the Palladium.

It is also a seamless second home to sundry bishops, if bishops may so severally be described.

David Warren discovered St James's through an earlier column, found it suited him perfectly and is now church council secretary and webmaster. Since Abed-nego learned of its existence through the Internet, it is tempting to claim all the credit.

The mystery visitor was overwhelmed - "one of the loveliest church interiors I have ever seen, the memory of which will not easily be erased."

He had never been so warmly greeted nor so readily assimilated, either, gave the sermon nine out of ten and would have awarded full marks had it not been read from notes, thought the music magnificent and even the pews, bottom line, the most comfortable in memory.

"The place has the fervour of a revivalist rally and the trappings of St Peter's in Rome," he added. "The sense was of being in a place where the only agenda was to offer praise to almighty God as perfectly as human imperfections allow.

"I'd move to Darlington for the church, if only I could figure out how to make a living there."

The headline might have been Fools Gold, with the only worry about where (if anywhere) to put the apostrophe.

Had we not preceded it, it would have been pretty hard to follow. It offered the opportunity, in any case, to pay the first annual visit for three years.

The church is on Albert Hill, an industrial area a mile north-east of the town centre. A notice on the door urges worshippers to talk to God before Mass and to one another afterwards; a little lad offers the service books.

"He's pinched my job," says the sidesman, cheerfully.

St James's, though Anglican, is for those of Catholic tastes. Neither time nor space permit the church politics of it all; suffice that it is thrilling - literally, thrilling - occasionally to join in.

Around 150 are present, including choir and servers immaculately robed and impeccably rehearsed, and three priests.

Fr Ian Grieves has been Vicar since 1989 and seen congregations rise five-fold, Canon David Hinge and Fr Gareth Jones are retired, usually joined by Fr Geoffrey Sowerby, a former Vicar of Hawes and of Leyburn.

Fr Grieves announces that it is also retirement day for Canon Arthur Middleton, Vicar for 24 years of Boldon, near Sunderland, and that he, too, will be joining the team.

The service is not said but celebrated, the atmosphere not apathetic but acclaiming, the music utterly memorable. If this is High Church, then some of us are still coming down.

Following the sudden death of David Garrood, 23-year-old Joe Ramadan, assistant director of music at Durham School, has been appointed organist. Joe has already played in places as diverse as St Paul's Cathedral and Buckingham Palace ballroom and as doubtless they say in the Royal School of Church Music, doesn't half give it what fettle.

A little lad has a dummy almost as big as himself; another, improbably in view of the decibel level, is asleep on his father's shoulder.

Fr Grieves' sermon, eight and a half minutes, is about expecting the unexpected. Amen to that and a chap comes up at the end, asks if we like presents and, affirmatively acknowledged, hands over a plastic carrier bag.

"What's this?" we asks.

"Pheasants, you said you liked them," he replies.

Joe is still playing a quite voluptuous voluntary, is applauded (involuntarily) and plays another. Had he continued, Darlington would never have had its dinner.

Everyone, of course, is most warmly welcome. As Shakespeare if not the Ship of Fools observed, caviar to the general.

* Principal Sunday Mass at St James the Great, Albert Hill, Darlington, is at 10am. Fr Ian Grieves is on 01325 465980. The website is at ship-of-fools.com

Praying for peace

THE churches of Newton Aycliffe stage a Day of Prayer for Peace at St Clare's, in the town centre, next Saturday from 10am-4pm.

"The odds are heavily in favour of war in the next few weeks. We need to focus our minds on the alternative," says Canon Bill Broad, St Clare's Team Rector.

Led by clergy of different denominations, there will be acts of prayer and worship on the hour, with specially chosen music and times for private reflection.

* A Pilgrimage for Peace leaves Rueberry Lane, Osmotherley at 2.30pm tomorrow, with Mass in the Lady Chapel in the village at 3pm.