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||1027: St Stephen's,
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?
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
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
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
What were the exact opening words of the
"In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
What books did the congregation use during the
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
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?
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
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
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
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
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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