A modest place of worship, the church meets in a one-storey building that has all the appearance of being an annex to a larger church; something akin to a church hall. Only there doesn't appear to be another such building, though there is both a Pentecostal and an Anglican church within a few yards. As you come through the outer gates and through a small garden, you enter into a foyer area with a few seats dotted about. The main hall resembles a school hall, or multi-purpose gym, with a hard wooden floor. The seats were laid out in a horse-shoe shape, though I was informed that this wasn't the normal layout.
They pride themselves on being very multicultural. I heard a wide variety of accents there, including Nigerian, Jamaican and Ghanaian. The church has a strong ethos of faith expressed as social action, and to that end is a part of the community organisation, Citizens UK. They also support a food bank in nearby Peckham; I witnessed collections for this being taken at the end of the meeting. The youth group, Mayhem, had recently returned from a short retreat and a couple of the youth spoke briefly during the meeting.
Camberwell is far from being one of London's more salubrious neighbourhoods. Situated between Peckham to the east and Kennington to the west, the area is most notable for its tired-looking shop fronts and high rise flats, though there has been some redevelopment in the area in the last few years, leading some local residents to say that the area is on the path to gentrification. Its more famous residents include BBC correspondent Jeremy Bowen (who is still often seen on his bicycle when he's not in a war zone) and lead singer of Florence and the Machine, Florence Welch.
As the minister was away, the service was co-led by two persons known only as Kemi and Catherine; no surnames were given.
What was the name of the service?Altogether Service.
How full was the building?
At the start of the service there were about 25 people, but this roughly doubled during the meeting, making the place around half full.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
As I came in, two elderly ladies sitting in the foyer looked at me askew and asked (in a very loud voice), "Who are you?" As I stepped into the hall, someone handed me a Bible and invited me to take a seat wherever I liked. A couple of people smiled and said hello.
Was your pew comfortable?
The chairs were fairly basic but not uncomfortable.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Informal and friendly. People talked in ones and twos where they sat, while the pianist practised a few songs.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Hello. Good morning."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
We had some copies of the Good News Bible, though everything was projected onto a screen.
What musical instruments were played?
Did anything distract you?
There was some interesting artwork on display. Several small canvases were placed high up on one wall. On a notice board behind the piano there were two depictions of skeletons that rather resembled the characters from Janet and Allan Ahlberg's classic children's book Funnybones, though I couldn't fathom why the skeletons were there in the first place.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was pretty low church, verging on the side of being disorganised. The theme of the day was the forthcoming Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. The service opened with us being asked to take a piece of paper and draw a flag on it. Coloured pencils were passed around, though one had to pick up several before finding one that wasn't broken or in dire need of a bit of sharpening. We held up our drawings to illustrate the diversity of the games. We also had a quiz on what we knew about the Olympics (more on this below) and a couple of the youth spoke for a couple of minutes on the topic of how the Christian life is like competing in sport, only I couldn't hear a word they said. This was all interspersed with a few songs from the more happy clappy end of the spectrum and some prayers. There was also a space given for people to share their testimonies of how God had been faithful in their lives recently.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Shortly after taking my seat, I was asked to do a reading. Normally, asking a visitor to stand up in front of the whole church would be distinctly unheavenly, but I was given the chance to read through the passage (Hebrews 12:1-13 "run the race with perseverance") before the service and it was quite a privilege to give a reading.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Where to start? During the quiz, one of the questions was: "In which Olympics were women first allowed to compete in weightlifting?" To which the answer provided by the quizmaster was "Tokyo 2004," which nobody got, most probably due to the fact that the 2004 Olympics took place in Athens. On top of this, the person in charge of the projector and sound desk looked distinctly disinterested in what she was doing and had to be nudged several times to remind her that the PowerPoint needed to be moved on a slide. This was in addition to several failures of the microphones, which varied from squeaky feedback to being nigh-on inaudible.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
A couple of people thanked me for the reading and someone pointed me to a serving hatch where teas and coffees were being served.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Distinctly average. It was an instant coffee served in a glass mug, though there was a presumption that people wanted tea. The conversation went something like this: "Would you like a tea?" "May I get a black coffee, please?" "Tea?" "No, coffee." This was then followed by a slight panic in the kitchen as though someone had gone into a restaurant and ordered something that wasn't on the menu. The church was also blessed with some talented bakers, with some rock cakes (small, hard, round cakes usually served with tea) proving especially popular.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – I can't comment on the teaching as there was none on the day I visited. But for a church that cares for one another and looks outward to the wider community, it was admirable.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
I left there with a broad grin on my face.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
Wondering what level of research resulted in a quizmaster stating that the 2004 summer Olympics took place in Tokyo.