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  1025: All Saints, Blackheath, London

All Saints, Blackheath, London

Mystery Worshipper: Jack the Lass.
The church: All Saints, Blackheath, London.
Denomination: Church of England.
The building: This is a traditional Victorian church set on the edge of the heath. It's the type of church building that looks ideally suited to a village green, which Blackheath essentially is despite now being surrounded by a much more urban landscape.
The church: The church has an affiliated Church of England primary school. It also supports parent and baby/toddler groups and various church-related societies, and is involved in the inter-denominational Blackheath Group of Churches. The youth group appears to be very much involved in the life of the church. I was pleasantly surprised by the large number of young families that attend the church as well as those of more mature years, although the 35-50 age range appeared to be somewhat under-represented.
The neighbourhood: Blackheath has been an affluent residential suburb since the late 17th century and is dominated by its large heath. The popular myth that the area was named after the heath's dubious honour as a mass burial place of victims of the Black Death in the 14th century is untrue, as the name was recorded at least 200 years before this. The heath and nearby Greenwich Park (home of the world famous Royal Observatory) form the first high ground southeast of London, and together make up an oasis of open land just up the road from some of London's most deprived areas such as Kidbrooke and Deptford. Blackheath's quaint centre, near the church, consists largely of restaurants and independent shops, along with a few obligatory estate agents. Housing prices in the area are considerably higher than average for London. Consequently the area consists mainly of older middle-class and more affluent people, with much less ethnic diversity than in the surrounding areas (something which appeared to be reflected in the makeup of the congregation).
The cast: The Rev. Nicholas Cranfield, vicar, presided and preached.

What was the name of the service?
Parish Eucharist.

How full was the building?
Initially the church appeared well under half full (100 or so people), but numbers were boosted by latecomers as well as older children returning from Sunday school. It was still possible, though, to maintain plenty of personal space, and most pews only had a handful of people in them. By the end it was probably just over half full.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes – a delightful old lady with a twinkly smile said "Good morning" as she handed me my hymn book and service booklet, and looked genuinely pleased to see me.

Was your pew comfortable?
It was a standard wooden pew which was comfortable enough, though by the end of the service an hour and twenty minutes later I was beginning to feel just a bit fidgety and in need of something a little softer.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Before the service the atmosphere was fairly quiet. Some people were chatting in hushed tones, and families were attempting to settle their children, but I didn't get the impression of lots of gossiping or greeting going on.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
The New English Hymnal and a specially printed service booklet. There were no pew Bibles.

What musical instruments were played?
Organ and choir.

Did anything distract you?
Although the sound of children fidgeting was present throughout pretty much all of the service, it was really distracting only during the readings, which were not miked up. Also, during the eucharist I was convinced the bell was about to fall apart, it was being rung in such a frenzy. And toward the end of the service I noticed a particularly unfortunate hairdo which I kept staring at despite myself.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Stiff-upper-lip, a pretty traditional Anglo-Catholic sung mass. Incense, processions, the works, and no hand-waving in sight. The incense was fairly well contained though – I wasn't sitting in a fog, and only sneezed once.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
12 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – The vicar started by outlining the plot of Tchaikovsky's opera Eugene Onegin (I gather he is something of an arts buff), to which he then periodically referred throughout the sermon.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The sermon dealt with the simplicity of the Passion story – intense love, betrayal, distrust, evil (hence the link to Eugene Onegin). The essence of the gospel is shown in the shared experiences of the small group of disciples, and their story is also ours. When did we last betray Jesus? Do we love Jesus above all others and come to him despite the constraints of social conventions? Do we spend time with social outcasts? Saints can be said to be those with the courage to face those questions, and the challenge of those questions prepares us for the full joy of resurrection. The disciples experienced the real presence of Jesus, as he was with them as they broke bread together after his death and resurrection. We share that experience and are empowered to share the gospel. It is not only "important people" like the Pope and the new Bishop of Woolwich (both inaugurated today), but each one of us who, by partaking in this shared experience, is given faith to proclaim the good news.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The Sanctus was beautifully sung by the choir and made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. Also, during the singing of the Agnus Dei, I thought that the contrast between the children's fidgeting and the beautiful choral singing was a wonderful illustration of how God welcomes us all no matter how we come to him.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Nothing was absolutely awful, but as an outsider who is not so familiar with a sung liturgy, I found it difficult to sing parts of the service (for example the Lord's Prayer) in anything more than a mumble. It felt almost like I didn't mean it, as I was more concerned with not getting it wrong than with the meaning of the words. I also felt a bit uncomfortable as a man sitting fairly near to me scolded his child in a hissing voice during the intercessions.

If intercessory prayers were said, what issues were raised?
The intercessory prayers followed a traditional order – the Church, local and universal (including prayers for the new Pope and for the new local bishop); the country and its leaders (mention was made of the forthcoming general election, the Queen and her advisors); world issues (concentrating on areas of conflict such as Iraq, the Holy Land, the wider Middle East and Sudan); and the church's affiliated primary school.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
At first I stood at the back of the church, where I was roundly ignored apart from someone saying "excuse me" to get past me and someone apologising for nearly walking into me. I then moved to where drinks were being served and found I was still ignored. However, just as I was about to give up and leave, a gentleman asked me if I'd been at the church's annual general meeting a few days previously, and after I explained that I was a visitor we had a very pleasant chat for five minutes or so about the church and the local area.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Drinks were served on a trestle table at the back of the church. The brand of coffee was nowhere obvious, so I've no idea if it was fair trade or not, but it looked and smelled to me (a non-coffee drinker) like it wasn't instant. The small china cups were emblazoned with a hotel logo. Biscuits (nothing fancy) were also available, and juice for the children.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 – My own preference is for a slightly "lower down the candle" church, but if this church were on my doorstep I would be happy to attend it occasionally. I don't think I'd make it my regular place of worship, though. I would have been pleased to see a few more people filling the (very common) void between young families and the more elderly members, and a greater ethnic mix.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes – although the service was higher than I'm used to, it did challenge me and make me think, and the choral singing helped me to appreciate the beauty of the liturgy afresh.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
Seeing the vicar, whilst solemnly and reverently censing the Gospel book, winking and smiling at a nearby baby who was absolutely transfixed by the whole scene.
 
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