Ascension, Blackheath, London

Church of the Ascension, Blackheath, London


Info and corrections →

Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Church of the Ascension
Location: Blackheath, London
Date of visit: Sunday, 13 June 2010, 10:30am

The building

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 in 1950.

The church

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 neighborhood

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!

The cast

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.

What was the name of the service?

Parish Eucharist.

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 we'd come.

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 atmosphere?

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 service?

Spoken by a nice member of the congregation, 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 minutes' silence."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

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 what?

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?

11 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

7 – The Revd Christine 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 another visit (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 it isn't!

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

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.

Our Mystery Worshippers are volunteers who warm church pews for us around the world. If you’d like to become a Mystery Worshipper, start here.

Find out how to reproduce this report in your church magazine or website.

Comments and corrections

To comment, please scroll to the end of this report and add your thoughts there. To send us factual corrections, please contact us. We also discuss reports on our Ecclesiantics bulletin board.

© Ship of Fools