The church meets in the Harris Academy, Bermondsey, a secondary school for girls. There was some sort of purple coating on the stairway leading up to the entrance as well as on an outer wall how appropriate for Lent but I saw no indication of any Lenten observance apart from a lack of biscuits! They even referred to Mother's Day instead of Mothering Sunday. The service was held in what seemed to be a theatre, complete with stage and curtains, with various theatrical posters dotting the walls. It wasn't the first church I waked into, though. I'd followed a few people into another building on the academy campus and found myself in what seemed to be a rather shouty Pentecostal church. As the only white person there, I was asked which church I was after, as someone clearly thought I looked out of place. It turns out that City Hope is just one of three churches that meet there on a Sunday. The others were described as "black" and "South American."
City Hope has existed in various guises over the years. It can trace itself back to a Baptist church in nearby Drummond Road, where they still own a building, but the congregation has outgrown it. Before becoming City Hope, it had been known as Vineyard, but this had nothing to do with the John Wimber church of the same name and greater fame. The church has a number of ministries, including a Christians Against Poverty centre and a Trussell Trust food bank. The church also encourages its members to join midweek small groups known as Connect Groups.
Bermondsey is situated in the London borough of Southwark, just east of Elephant & Castle and north of Peckham. It plays host to the football club Milwall, famous more for the aggression of its fans than for the quality of their football. The theme of aggression is carried on by the presence of an old Czech tank that resides on Mandela Way.
The service was led by Rebecca Whittlesea. The sermon was given by senior pastor, Vic Wilson. There was also a family thanksgiving led by Paul Brown.
What was the name of the service?There didn't seem to be a particular name for the service.
How full was the building?
Very full, with about 200 people, about a quarter of whom were under the age of 12.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes. Upon walking in, I was handed a leaflet. As soon as I had found a seat, two people came over in quick succession to say hello and enquire has to how I found myself at City Hope but in a friendly manner, rather than intrusive, as can happen in some churches unused to visitors.
Was your pew comfortable?
Not particularly. We had fold-up plastic chairs that were all linked together. Thankfully, no one was sat right next to me, but quite a few people looked a little bit squashed up next to one another.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Pandemonium! The proliferation of children in the church resulted in numerous fast-moving trip hazards that chased each other around the chairs. The adults were trying to catch up with each on the happenings of the week, but kept having to break off to go in search of a child.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning, City Hope and friends."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
No books. There was a screen upon which the words were projected. Well, eventually projected. Someone forgot to turn it on until half way through the first song. Any Bible passages were also projected, though it wasn't clear which translation was being used.
What musical instruments were played?
Keyboard, guitar (alternating between electric and acoustic), bass guitar and drums.
Did anything distract you?
The film posters around the room looked down on the congregation like icons. In this case, particularly secular icons of Audrey Hepburn and Gene Kelly.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It's a Newfrontiers church and you've seen the list of instruments. Have a guess!
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
4 – Vic was all over the place. He spoke without notes, but really could have done with some. He came across more as a person who wanted to be heard, rather than someone bringing a message that ought to be heeded.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Given how all over the place Vic was, it was hard to tell. Loosely based on Psalm 126 ("When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dreamed").
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The family thanksgiving (which was explicitly neither a naming ceremony nor a christening) was rather nice, as it showed the huge value the church places on family.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
There was an odd moment where one person came forward to speak about some open air preaching that they'd been doing in Trafalgar Square, Southend, Tunbridge Wells and Plumstead. It quickly descended into a bizarre rambling statement about some kind of express train (complete with choo choo sounds) that made no kind of sense whatsoever. It was cringeworthy and quite embarrassing.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I sat in my seat for a few minutes and a few people spoke near me, but not to me. I eventually got up and served myself a cup of coffee from a nearby table. As I slowly made my way around the room, someone eventually came along and spoke to me. He was a most genial fellow and felt I could chat to him for hours.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Nothing special. As I said, it was serve yourself and the coffee was a bit thin, but it was a good temperature. The only point I wasn't sure about was what to do with my empty paper cup, as I couldn't see any bins nor did I observe what other people were doing with theirs.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
6 – I think there was a great heart here, but the theology seemed a bit wonky in places.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Bits of it did.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The nagging sense of unease at the fact that three churches met in the same location but seemed separated by race, language and/or nationality.