Part of a complex that once included a school and almshouse (and today still includes housing for 16 elders) with a French looking clock tower like a mini-chateau. It makes an improbable site in suburban south London. Consecrated in 1616, the chapel and its courtyard complex are still at heart Elizabethan, though thoroughly restored and at some point in its history covered in white painted plaster. The chapel itself is a single room with a gallery at the back and down one side, nice oak fittings, and an elaborate, rather dominant, reredos of 1911. The money for the foundation of school, chapel and almshouse came from the will of Edward (‘Ned’) Alleyn, the Elizabethan actor-manager whose theatrical career was financially and artistically a great success, permitting him to buy an expansive estate of Dulwich, then some miles outside London. Alleyn worked with a number of Renaissance playwrights but is best known for staging many of Shakespeare's plays for the first time.
Built as the chapel for the almshouse residents and school, it still fulfills both roles, as Christ's Chapel falls today under the jurisdiction of the local parish, which in turn provides chaplains for four nearby schools nearby founded from Alleyn's gift, today among London's leading private schools. Edward Alleyn's generous gift has been in the hands of careful trustees, and four centuries on, the chapel and schools remain among its beneficiaries. The local parish of St Barnabas seems lively and the church well attended. Its church is only a few hundred yards away, which perhaps explains the low attendance at evensong. It may be a much older foundation, but today perhaps inevitably Christ's Chapel feels a little like the younger sibling of the younger main parish church. Evensong in Christ's Chapel, Dulwich, is sung on the 2nd-5th Sundays in the month. The fourth ( usually) Sunday's service is Choral Evensong. Some services are sung by Dulwich College Chapel choir; most of them are sung by the choir of Christ's Chapel, Dulwich. For six weeks during the summer, all but the 8.00am said service of BCP Holy Communion are neither said nor sung.
The chapel is set in Dulwich Village, which still looks and feels like the out-of-town village it once was, with 18th century houses and a village-like main street. Though it is now surrounded by the extensive suburban sprawl of South London, the village and its setting of woods and school playing fields are a precious semi-rural survival. Perhaps inevitably now village residential property is expensive and desirable, whilst the old village stores have yielded to boutiques and cafes of the more elegant sort.
A minister led evensong with a choir of eight in the gallery with organist.
What was the name of the service?Evensong.
How full was the building?
I counted 13 of us, with the choir in the gallery making 21.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes, a friendly soul welcomed me and offered me a large velvet cushion to sit on as well as the service sheet and three books.
Was your pew comfortable?
It was. A solid Victorian job with poppy-heads, arranged collegiate style, with people facing the minister sideways across the chapel. A second person offered me a large velvet covered cushion to place on the pew. Kind as was their concern for my backside, I declined a second time and was perfectly comfortable without.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quiet. One or two ladies were setting out tea and cakes in a room at the back – to be eaten after the organ recital that followed evensong.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
'To the Lord our God belong mercies and forgiveness... '
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The Book of Common Prayer for those who wanted to follow the words on paper; New English Hymnal and a psalter that included the chants for the psalm, Magnificat and Nunc dimittis. I followed these in the prayer book without attempting to chant in time with the choir.
What musical instruments were played?
The organ – an important instrument by George England, 1760, reconstructed by the doyen of authentic English organ restorers, William Drake, in 2008.
Did anything distract you?
The names of the Alleyn family – presumably descendants of the donor – who acted as masters of the chapel, almshouse and school were listed beside the reredos. After a few generations they started to spell their named Allen – and later still those without the founder's family name are listed. There must be explanations for this. But distracted I was, so I put these thoughts back in their box and tuned into evensong.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
An intimate Prayer Book evensong with three short-ish hymns and a sermon. The choir of eight sang the simple and moving anthem 'Hide Thou not Thy Face' by English composer Richard Farrant (1525-1580).
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 — The preacher’s motif was 'Who are you?' He successfully riffed on it with reference to our readings: Nehemiah 6:1-16 (objections to rebuilding of the wall) and John 15:12-17 (‘Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends’). The preacher didn't mention the present day walls in Palestine, or the Mexican or North Macedonian borders, but they were evoked vividly enough by the reading.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The politics of Nehemiah's defensive wall-building round Jerusalem against the non-Jewish peoples has contemporary resonance. When Nehemiah refused to meet opponents of his wall-building, it was with an indignant tone of 'Who are you?' The New Testament reading could not give a more different, uplifting response to a more neutral version of the question 'Who are you?' Christ said: 'You are my friends if you do what I command you.'
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The collect against all perils of the night. This one-sentence Elizabethan prayer is for me often the emotional heart of evensong; timeless and appropriate to the approach of night.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Not hellish – and more of a distraction. It was very difficult to hear the readings, even though we sat near the reader. She had a microphone and must have thought this would do the business; and it might have done so, had it been pointing even vaguely towards her mouth.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Most people left fairly promptly after the organ voluntary, a jaunty number by Sweelinck, after a few words with the minister, who was at the back to send us on our way. One or two lingered, probably for the organ recital that followed. A pile of programmes for the recital were put our as our Prayer Books were put away. Dulwich village at night is quieter than most parts of London, and stepping out into the courtyard, one senses that the background roar of city traffic is that much less audible. There was a sallow full moon to light our way home through the humid autumnal night air. Both coffee and conviviality would have been inappropriate to the hour of the day.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
The bean was on hold.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
6 — When I have cause to be in that part of town I shall – though I think evensong is not held in the chapel every Sunday, so some diary planning is called for.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
'Blessed' would be a better word than 'glad'.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
Evensong in the intimate chapel in its village-like setting – it could stand as a definition of non-jingoistic traditional Englishness.