Built in the late 19th century to a design by Gothic Revival champion George Fellowes Prynne, its a magnificent red brick structure that stands solidly above the surrounding houses and trees. It was hit by a fire in 2000 and the subsequent restoration work gives the place a feeling of blending the old and new. The pillars at the side of the nave are as old as the building and show a little wear, but there are metal and glasswork dotted about that give it a much more contemporary feel. The rounded chancel and exceptionally high ceiling give a cavernous impression.
They are is closely linked with the LArche community, an international network of faith-based communities that create homes and communities formed of people both with and without learning disabilities. All Saints is also registered with Inclusive Church. They are heavily involved in the local community, serving as a hub much in the style of a more rural parish. Their community involvement includes social action such as supporting a food bank and setting up a charity called 4ALL to promote community and neighbourliness. They are also the home of Lambeth Orchestra, the host of a number of yoga and pilates lessons, and a "knit & natter" group, amongst others.
West Dulwich is a very well-heeled suburb in the London borough of Southwark, as may be evidenced by the eye-watering property prices and a high number of private schools in the area. Most notable of is these is Dulwich College, whose alumni vary from the sublime to the ridiculous, including author PG Wodehouse and politician Nigel Farage. Having walked to the church at half past five in the morning, I can also testify that the area has a vibrant population of urban foxes.
The service was led by the Revd Harold Munn, who was a guest at All Saints for Holy Week. The vicar, the Revd David Stephenson, preached. A deacon held the pascal candle and sang the Exultet, while a couple of acolytes shared the duty of being thurifer. All were in white albs. The celebrant wore a cream chasuble on top of his alb while the vicar wore a stole over his.
What was the name of the service?First Eucharist of Easter with the Service of Light
How full was the building?
For a 6.00am service, there was a hearty turnout of about 30 of us. It didn't get close to filling the church, but the clergy said it was the biggest turnout they'd had for this service.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
I was handed a service sheet and candle by someone who hadn't been asked to be on duty, but saw the need for service and fulfilled it on their own initiative.
Was your pew comfortable?
We had firm wooden seats. They werent uncomfortable, though Id be reluctant to spend too much time seated on them. On the back of each was engraved a name, seemingly some "hero of the faith" or member of the congregation. The names included famous names Florence Nightingale and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, though there were also single names like Margaret.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
It was very uncertain. After initially taking a seat, people started to file out of the back of the church to stand in a circle in the entrance hall. A few people spoke to one another, though at this time in the morning, most looked in need of a bit of caffeine. We were then ushered outside of the church for the start of the service.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
The celebrant, with a rich Canadian accent that wouldn't be out of place doing the voiceover for a Hollywood blockbuster, said: "Eternal God, who made this most holy night to shine with the brightness of your One True Light: set us aflame with the fire of your love, and bring us to the radiance of your heavenly glory. Through Jesus Christ our Lord."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
We most used the service sheet provided. We sang one hymn from the New English Hymnal.
What musical instruments were played?
A piano was played occasionally. There were also some handbells that were played at two points in the service (see below).
Did anything distract you?
For most of the service, the congregation were holding candles, but the paper shield wasn't terribly effective. So at odd occasions, hot wax dripped onto my hand, which was a little painful. I would then spend some time peeling off the cooled wax from my fingers.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It may have been a fairly high church Anglo-Catholic service, but it was suffused with joy. A fire was lit (at the second attempt) to symbolise the Resurrection. A short liturgy was spoken before the lighting of the paschal candle, which then had five nails inserted into it. It seems the holes had already been drilled, so there was no need for a hammer. As we then headed back into the church, we had our own candles lit before the deacon sang the Exultet. After the sermon, there was a renewal of baptism where the celebrant blessed the water before he and the Revd David splashed it over us with sprigs of rosemary, though as they did so, some of the sprigs disintegrated and fresh herbs flew towards the heads of the gathered congregation. With what was left of the rosemary, the clergy then engaged in what could only be described as a bit of play-fighting, treating the rosemary as swords and flicking the blessed water at one another like schoolboys. It may have been undignified, but it was a good bit of light fun. The eucharist saw a wonderful bit of ad hoc choreography, as the congregation initially lined up widthways along the steps in front of the altar, before a silent signal was given for us to queue single file instead down the length of the nave.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – The Revd David spoke clearly but gently and seemingly without notes, though I did spy some when he showed me his mobile phone later.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Resurrection means that a new age has dawned. During a recent retreat, there had been thought given as to what it meant for the church to be a body. Resurrection overcomes isolation. Sin is disconnection. The long reign of sin is overcome.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The hospitality I was shown was exemplary. They had asked people to sign up for breakfast beforehand, but being a visitor, I didn't. Yet I was welcomed warmly, but not overbearingly.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
So little was hellish, I am going to have to nitpick. There was a moment when a small of group of musicians were playing a tune with hand-rung bells and they didn't get it quite right. There was mumbling, some confusion, and the timing of the bells was a bit off. As it was Easter, it is right to point out a feature of redemption, where the same group played another tune at the end of the service and got it spot on, earning a round of applause from the whole congregation.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I had a pleasant chat with a churchwarden and was invited downstairs for breakfast.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
It was very nice filter coffee served in proper mugs. The warm pain au chocolat was also very nice, albeit that it made quite a mess on my fingers.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
10 – It was a joy to be there and I was made to feel very welcome and at home. Without exception, everyone I spoke to was extremely hospitable and a credit to the whole church.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
It was a tremendous privilege to be a part of this church for a short time.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The sight of two priests play-fighting with holy water.