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Church of the Ascension,
Church of England, Diocese
The church started as a chapel in the late 17th century. Its
benefactress was Susannah Graham, the second daughter of Sir
William Washington, an ancestor of George Washington, the first
president of the United States. As it was not a parish church,
it was linked with St Mary’s in Lewisham. Eventually it became
an independent parish on Ascension Day, 3 May 1883, but not
without squabbles and misunderstandings about money (plus
ça change, plus c'est la même chose, as they
say in French). The building has a modest exterior, with small
cupola. The inside is quite big, square, and painted in pale
beige. The nave was damaged during World War II but was restored
The parish has long been in the forefront of change. Toward
the turn of the 20th century they gave their support to district
visitors (we call them social workers now), who made their rounds
in the poorer sections of the parish. In the 1960s and 70s the
church was open round the clock for prayer, meditation and shelter.
In 1994, Elsie Baker, a deacon at Ascension since 1968, was
one of the first women to be ordained a priest in the Church
of England at age 85! The parish sponsors several outreach
programmes, including the Wash House, a youth club; and Friends
of the Ascension, for people who are interested in the building
but are not regulars at the church. There is also a Guide troupe.
The church is located on the edge of Blackheath, a very affluent
area of southeast London. It is near the edge of Lewisham, which
is a more working-class area. The area itself is known for being
quite artistic, with Goldsmiths' College in nearby Lewisham,
and Trinity College of Music in Greenwich. Blackheath itself
sports a conservatoire and a concert hall, as well as several
very good pubs and curry houses!
This Sunday, the church had done a vicar swap with St John with
Holy Trinity, Deptford. The usual vicar, a popular chap according
to the person I was chatting with afterward, was at that church,
and their vicar, the Revd Christine Bainbridge, was leading
the service here today.
The date & time:
Sunday, 13 June 2010, 10.30am.
What was the name of the service?
How full was the building?
At 10.30 it looked fairly empty. One of the congregation described
this as a very liberal church, a sentiment that obviously extends
to timekeeping! A number of people came in just after 10.30.
Fortunately, the service catered for these people, and kicked
off at 10.35! I would estimate there were about 25-30 during
the majority of the service, and the church looked quite empty.
Don't ask me why, but the beige colour scheme made it feel even
emptier! Toward the end of the service, the children came back
from Sunday school along with a number of adults who'd been
helping. That helped to swell the ranks to around 50.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes. I was handed a service sheet and book by a sidesman. Once
Mrs Charles and I had sat down, four or five other people came
up to us to welcome us to the church and enquire as to whence
Was your pew comfortable?
I've sat on nicer ones. The back was too upright. I found the
back too low, although Mrs Charles didn't. I like to sit back
a little for the sermon, which wasn't really possible.
How would you describe the pre-service
Chatty and lively. It was a lovely sunny morning, and it seemed
fitting for the atmosphere of the building.
What were the exact opening words of the
Spoken by a nice Indian gentleman rather than the priest: "Good
morning, everyone, and welcome to Church of the Ascension. I
will shortly read the collect, after which there will be a few
What books did the congregation use during the
We had an order of service printed by the church, a hymn book
published by the church, a calendar of the year's events, and
a notice sheet. There were no Bibles in the pews.
What musical instruments were played?
An organ, which Mrs C, being an organist, tells me sounded quite
new and quite nice. The organist was very good, although he
blotted his copy book by knocking the keyboard during the eucharistic
prayer! He also played the piano during the Agnus Dei, with
his wife singing (but read on!).
Did anything distract you?
At communion I was toward the end of the queue, and the two
chalices from which the wine was ministered still appeared quite
full. I spent the end of the service thinking that if the vicar
had to consume all the leftover wine, she had better not be
driving home. Also that she'd be nursing a hangover later on!
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or
Very relaxed C of E. It certainly wasn't happy clappy. Rather,
it was respectfully reverent throughout but had a very relaxed
feel to it.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how
good was the preacher?
7 Mrs Bainbridge was a competent preacher with a lovely
speaking voice and style. She was making an effort not to read
her sermon (which was a nice change from our usual church!),
but there were a few too many pauses whilst she referred to
her notes to see what to say next.
In a nutshell, what was
the sermon about?
The gospel reading was Luke 7:36-50, the story of the woman
who washed Jesus' feet at Simon the Pharisee's house. She compared
Luke's version of the story with that given in the other gospels
(Matthew 26:6-10 and Mark 14:3-6). She focussed on the reaction
of sinners to Jesus, contrasting the woman's approach to that
of Simon the ever-so-righteous Pharisee. We ought to reflect
on our approach to Jesus.
Which part of the service
was like being in heaven?
I hadn't noticed at the time, but we skipped the Agnus Dei before
communion (along with the Sanctus and Benedictus). After everyone
had been to the altar rail and returned to their seats, the
organist's wife sang the Agnus Dei from Mozart's Coronation
Mass, with her husband accompanying on the piano. This
was a really nice moment.
And which part was like
being in... er... the other place?
It wasn't a bad service in and of itself, and I quite enjoyed
the experience, despite some misplaced service music and a little
too much leftover wine. Nevertheless, I can’t let this
report pass without having a good moan about a matter or two.
But alas! Where to start? The offering, for one. I know that
many churches today struggle financially, and I'm always disappointed
when Gift Aid envelopes are not available, which would enable
the church to claim back the tax on people's offerings. Not
only were there no envelopes, but I didn't even get a chance
to put any money (or the Mystery Worship calling card) into
the plate! They skipped our row completely, and we also weren't
able to get the attention of the gentleman bringing the offerings
up to the altar afterward. But a greater problem was the hymn
book, published by the church and containing just shy of 100
hymns. It was dreadful! I knew a few of the hymns in the book,
mostly quite modern ones, but others were unfamiliar in that
they took great old tunes such as Cwm Rhondda and Blaenwern
and pinned on dreadful modern texts politically correct,
gender-inclusive drivel about moving forward and all getting
along. There wasn't one Wesley hymn (or none that I noticed)
in the whole book. I'm not counting Blaenwern, as the
words were completely new with no reference at all to the beautiful
poetry of the original.
What happened when you
hung around after the service looking lost?
There were a huge number of announcements at the end of the
service, mostly for charities being supported by the church
or news about various members of the congregation. That done,
there was no opportunity to look lost, though. We were immediately
drawn into conversation with a couple of different people and
ushered to get a coffee.
How would you describe
the after-service coffee?
Very nice, although I didn't get a look at the front of the
jar and couldn't be sure whether or not it was fair trade. There
were also chocolate biscuits!
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
6 It was a nice service and the congregation were really
really welcoming. However, for my taste, it was just too liberal
and the hymns were a real turn-off. When I explained to someone
that our usual church is very high and traditional, he assumed
it must be ultra-conservative and anti-women priests, which
Did the service make you feel glad to be a
Yes. The friendliness and warmth of the welcome, and the delightful
manner of the priest, guaranteed this.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
With all the positives and negatives, I'm pleased to say that
the friendliness of the congregation is what stands out.
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