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588: The Ascension, Lavender Hill, London
Other reports | Comment on this report
Mystery Worshipper: Cool Dude.
The church: The Ascension, Lavender Hill, London SW11.
Denomination: Church of England.
The building: The building is a handsome brick barn by a Victorian architect. It's larger than it looks at first sight; you enter through a massive porch intended to support a tall tower and spire which were never built. Inside, little has changed since the day it was completed. It's brick everywhere and has a very impressive chancel, also brick, a stone screen and large suspended rood. The service was based around a nave altar on our side of the screen. There are numerous side altars containing statues painted in seriously colourful paint.
The church: In recent decades Battersea has undergone one of the most dramatic transformations by gentrification of any London suburb. However, this church still has the feel of a parish run by one of the great Victorian "slum priests", which is how it was when founded.
What was the name of the service?
Solemn high mass for the parish, 11.00am.

How full was the building?
About half of the chairs were occupied, 60 people or so, although there was space for a lot more chairs in the nave.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes. I was given an easy to follow service sheet complete with all the hymns.

Was your pew comfortable?
The chair seemed designed for worshippers with compact bottoms. It was slightly rickety – I was not confident it wouldn't collapse if I wriggled. I didn't and it didn't.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Distinctly talkative. I was the only person in the church not engaged in animated chatter. Some were having loud conversations across the nave. The atmosphere was not prayerful, but it did give the impression of a parish with a strong sense of fellowship.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"In the name of the Father... "

What books did the congregation use during the service?
None – the service sheet had it all.

What musical instruments were played?
A muscular Victorian organ somewhere high in the chancel was played with sensitivity.

Did anything distract you?
Counting the candles. There were about a dozen on the high altar and several more on the nave altar. There were little red votive lights around the saint's shrines and six huge and rather wonderful Victorian sanctuary lamps hanging in the chancel. As if that were not enough, there were red votive lights on various ledges round about and across the chancel screen. All of them were lit, enlivening the beautiful but rather serious architecture.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Catholic, reformed (the priest faced us while celebrating) but not modern in feel.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
17 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
It was a good sermon, expressing clearly how the different features of St Peter and St Paul (whose solemnity it was) were also key characteristics for the church. It was clear, without theological jargon and pitched for understanding.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The good long silence after communion: a moment of contemplation in an otherwise busy service

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The peace. I am not a peace refusenik; on the contrary, I like the moment of the exchange of peace. But this was the most comprehensive I have encountered. Everyone in the place greeted everyone else so it took about four or five minutes. I drew the line at the ten or so people within comfortable reach and was probably taken for a curmudgeonly misanthrope. The lively chat with which had immediately preceded the service broke out all over again, like the eruption of conversation in a classroom when the school bell goes. A couple of ladies behind me were gossiping about one of their sons, as they strolled about making sure no hand was left unshaken. It was undeniably friendly, but a complete disruption to the service.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Coffee was available at the rear of the church and I was invited by the old gent next to me to join his group. There was more lively chatter.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Instant.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 I might if there were a greater sense of prayer at the service.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
All those candles.
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