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  1027: St Stephen's, Lewisham, London

St Stephen's, Lewisham, London

Mystery Worshipper: E. Lean.
The church: St Stephen's, Lewisham, London.
Denomination: Church of England.
The building: This middle-sized squarish, late Victorian building in Kentish ragstone, designed by George Gilbert Scott, is set back from the main road and surprisingly easy to miss. The inside seems larger than the outside, and is friendly but perhaps a bit jumbled. There is a mixture of dark wood pews and partitions, some very Catholic-looking statues of saints (some of them quite garish), and some artistic modern touches. The communion table – which I am sure they would call an altar – is of a distinctive modern design.
The church: Most of the congregation – certainly over 80 percent – were black, mostly I think middle-aged or older West Indians. I thought I spotted quite a few Jamaican accents as well. The white minority seemed to be on the whole female, elderly, and middle-class. I think I was the only white male present under age 60 who wasn't in the altar party. Quoting from the order of service: "St Stephen's is a Forward in Faith parish which has sought extended episcopal care under the Episcopal Ministry Act of Synod 1993 and enjoys the episcopal ministry of the Bishop of Fulham." That is to say, they don't believe that women can be or ought to be priests; so instead of the Bishop of Southwark and his assistant the Bishop of Woolwich (who do ordain women), they relate to the Bishop of Fulham (who doesn't). The vicar, the Rev. Geoffrey Kirk, is a founder and the national secretary of Forward in Faith.
The neighbourhood: St Stephen's is at the north end of Lewisham High Street, near the railway station. Lewisham – like most of inner-suburban southeast London – is downmarket, grimy, sometimes rather old-fashioned, uncool by the standards of the more trendy north side of the river. But it is also lively, crowded, and about as socially and ethnically diverse as anywhere could be. The church is right next door to the largest police station in Europe, opposite a bustling street market and a rather drab shopping mall, and just round the corner from some rather grotty council estates; but behind the church leafy streets wind up-market toward Blackheath and Greenwich. There are millionaires living within a few hundred yards, and also poor immigrants six to a room.
The cast: The vicar, Father Kirk. There was a team of five or six other robed participants at the front, and two or three cantors at the back by the organ, but none was introduced by name.

What was the name of the service?
Parish Mass.

How full was the building?
Comfortably full with no crowding. I reckon there were about 50 people at the start of the service, but certainly more at the end, perhaps 80 or 100 in all.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
A woman at the door smiled and handed me a service sheet. The people I was sitting near were quiet until the exchange of peace.

Was your pew comfortable?
Very. A perfectly ordinary pleasant wooden pew with plenty of room. No messing about with silly little chairs.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Mostly quiet, with a little bit of chatter at the back. Maybe half the congregation, including almost all those with children, arrived soon after the start of the service.

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?
No books were in evidence. A printed order of service contained the hymns and most of the liturgy. This was folded inside a Forward in Faith leaflet which contained a commentary on the Gospel for the day (John 14:1-12), short pieces about St Ambrose, St Catherine of Siena and the permanent diaconate, and some quotes from the sayings of the Desert Fathers.

What musical instruments were played?
Organ, from a gallery at the back. There was no choir, but there were three cantors in the gallery, each of whom individually led different chants.

Did anything distract you?
The Latin inscription on the front of the holy table – sorry, altar – seemed to be a memorial to whoever had given money to have it made, or perhaps some other benefactor of the church. I was just a little too far back to see it clearly, and Latin is not my strongest language, so I spent too much time trying to read it and may have mistranslated. But it didn't seem entirely appropriate – surely the altar is a memorial to Jesus Christ.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Sky-high Anglo-Catholic with a strong Roman Catholic flavour. Much of the service was sung or chanted by the priest or by one or another of the cantors; with the rest of the congregation limited to a few short responses. And quite a lot of it was in Latin – the gloria, the credo, and some of the prayers. Visually, on the other hand, it was quite bland. There were plenty of candles, but not that much in the way of glitter and tat. The celebrant wore a plain white chausuble and the rest of the altar party were in albs. There was little in the way of processions; the Gospel was read from the lectern. Not much music either; there were only three hymns and no organ solos. At the very end, after the final hymn, the congregation turned toward the Lady Chapel on the southeast corner of the church and sang "Joy to thee O Queen of Heaven."

Exactly how long was the sermon?
6 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – Friendly, humorous, uncompromisingly intellectual. I've read quite a few of Father Kirk's writings and was keen to hear him preach. He started out with an anecdote about Lionel Trilling and Robert Frost, and went on to use words like "epistemology" more than once. He assumed that the listeners were interested in what he had to say and would recognise what he was talking about. Maybe that works with a congregation of mostly middle-aged or older working-class people educated in the West Indian system, but there are churches stuffed with 30-something graduates whose clergy would never dare try such a stunt. On the whole I was disappointed, though – he left me wanting more.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
We know God through the particular, his revelation in Jesus Christ, a real man located in space and time, and not through the general or ideal. We see God through the love of Jesus. Love is the essence of Christianity.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The sung parts of the liturgy were nice to listen to. The priest and cantors were good, but not frighteningly professional. Decent, pleasant voices, clear words, but not quite note-perfect. It sounded like a liturgy rather than a performance. I was more moved by the credo than I had expected – the unfamiliar Latin and the chanting forced me to pay attention to the words. The misprints in the service sheet were fun. Verse three of "Lord enthroned in heavenly splendour" was printed twice, causing pleasant confusion. Are mistakes made in heaven that cause the blessed to laugh?

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
A continuous mild fear of being exposed as a mystery worshipper, and my own difficulty in concentrating on the worship. Also, at communion, the minister of the cup tipped it only slightly and seemed very reluctant to let me take hold, so I had to bend low over it. Did I look as if I might swig the lot? My moustache unavoidably got dipped in the wine, which was undignified for me and surely no fun for the next communicant.

If intercessory prayers were said, what issues were raised?
We especially prayed for the new Pope – and in Latin: Oremus pro Pontifice nostro Benedicto. At the intercessions the Pope was mentioned again, as was the Bishop of Fulham and the sick and dead of the parish, many mentioned by name. The Bishops of Woolwich and Southwark and the Archbishop of Canterbury were not mentioned. But both the new Bishop of Woolwich and the Pope (again) were named during the eucharistic prayer.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
There wasn't much time, as the annual general meeting was due to start immediately after the service and the vicar wanted to get it over with as quickly as possible in order to watch the Pope on TV. One bloke came up to me and talked for a minute, and the vicar introduced himself. The general atmosphere was friendly enough, though noticeably quieter than my own church. A stall had been set up where various food items were being sold to aid Domus, an assisted living home for the elderly. I bought an apple, a sultana cake and a jar of home-made marmalade.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
I never got there. By the time I discovered that the cups of coffee I saw were coming from a little room next to the east door, it was time to start the annual general meeting. And so I left.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
2 – I'd think twice, or maybe three or four times, before coming here regularly. Not because of anything that happened on this Sunday, but because of their position on the ordained ministry of women and the legitimacy of the Church of England. Also, after a few weeks I'd be wanting to take a holiday somewhere with a lot more congregational hymn singing.

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?
Robert Frost and the apple and sultana cake.
 
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