The building has recently had a £1m facelift. The mostly glass front gives both a clear view out onto Clapham High Street and allows those outside to have a good peer in. As you come through the automatic doors, you enter a small cafe area before turning right, up half a dozen steps or so into the main hall, which is sparklingly white and very airy. The floor has a very gentle slope down to the front, where there is a low stage and a slightly higher pulpit. Above the back of the main hall is a small balcony, which hosts the organ and choir. Just behind the pulpit is a large green light, somewhat reminiscent of an emergency exit sign, though its precise purpose eluded me.
They have good ecumenical relations with other churches in Clapham and serve as the hub for the local street pastors team, which seems to be the church's main form of ministry to the community. They also have separate men's and women's fellowship meetings. The church membership seems to be made mostly from the Afro-Caribbean community, with many coming to church in their Sunday best; there were some very sharp suits on the men, and some of the women wore some very brightly coloured traditional wrappers.
Clapham is the hipster heart of south London. As I made my way to the church, someone from the marketing team of a drinks company tried to foist upon me a bottle of "sugar free orange water." The church is situated by the easternmost corner of the famous Common, though one might be ill-advised to take a picnic there, as that particular corner plays host to a very large collection of rooks and much of the rest of the Common is covered with evidence of dog owners who have ignored notices to pick up the litter. The church itself has as neighbours two of Clapham's most famous institutions: Infernos night club and Roosters Spot (the latter coming to fame through the Channel 4 fly-on-the-wall documentary series The Fried Chicken Shop).
The service was led by the Revd Graham Thomas, who also preached. The worship and prayers were led by Vivian Korley and Matthew Edunyah.
What was the name of the service?Morning Service.
How full was the building?
I understand it was relatively empty compared to normal (this being attributed to it being a bank holiday weekend), though every row was occupied. At a squeeze, you might be able to fit roughly double the 80 or so people who were present.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
A few people smiled and said hello as I came in. I was handed a hymn book and a notice sheet, but not offered a handshake. People spoke to us only after the service was over.
Was your pew comfortable?
We had some reasonably comfortable chairs. They had a little padding on the seat and a nicely shaped back to them. But they were far from lush; you'd be hard-pressed to fall asleep in them.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
There were a few conversations going on as people came in, quite a few revolving around the results of the school GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education, an award given to students who have passed a set of academically rigourous examinations), which had been issued a few days earlier. Last minute arrangements for the service were also being done, including the testing of the microphones and putting the hymn numbers on the board behind the pulpit, though not quite in the same order as they appeared on the notice sheet (see below).
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning. Welcome to worship. It's good to be with you."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
We sang hymns from Singing the Faith, though the words were also projected onto a screen at the front of the hall. The scripture readings were also projected there, though it wasn't clear what translation was being used. I know it didn't match the NRSV I had brought with me. The inside of my hymnbook bore the following dedication: "Presented to Clapham Methodist Church by Vicky Osibogun and her family on the occasion of her thanksgiving for healing 12 June 2011."
What musical instruments were played?
Just an organ. At the front of the church there were a keyboard and electric drum kit that had been set up, but it wasn't clear why they were left unused.
Did anything distract you?
I kept wondering why the minister kept carrying his Bible around tucked under his left arm, which looked slightly awkward and meant he constantly had one shoulder higher than the other. It wasn't until the end of the service that I noticed his left hand was prosthetic. I also kept wondering about the purpose or symbolism of the large green light behind the pulpit.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
This was good, middle-of-the-road Methodism with a selection of solid hymns. The singing was aided by a choir that had about 20 people in it who wore a brilliant outfit: burgundy red robes and mortar boards, making their procession look more like a university graduation ceremony than a regular church service.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
6 – The minister was far from being the most engaging speaker in the world. However, the substance of what he said was far better than his presentation.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
It was based on Luke 14:1,7-14 (take the lowest place at table). It was a warning against pomposity. How we stand before God is the most important thing, but there is a great temptation for us to compare ourselves to others. But standards are not set by the man or woman on the Clapham omnibus, but by God, who is perfect. The temptation to think of oneself as better than another is especially powerful among church ministers.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Near the beginning of the service, the minister asked the children if one of them of them would help him. He had a volunteer who was stood at the front of the church along with the two worship leaders. He then asked who was the most important person of the four of them. It was a simple illustration about inclusion and that we must welcome children, who play an important part in the life of the church.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
I doubt this menagerie of mild-mannered Methodists has ever had a mass meltdown, but it got as close as it ever did when it was discovered that the order of the hymns on the board didnt match that on the service sheet. Some people wanted to stick to the board; some thought the sheet ruled supreme. For about three seconds it seemed the church might dissolve into schism, but eventually the service sheet won out in this ever-so-slight molehill of a misunderstanding. Though it had been sorted out, it seemed that not many people were actually familiar with the hymns, though one person was very enthusiastic about it and insisted on clapping entirely out of time with both the organist and the choir (the latter two were out of time with each other, as well).
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Several people came over to introduce themselves to me. I was invited for a cup of tea or coffee and a chat with a couple of church members.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
It was OK. It was a plain instant coffee served in a mug. It was a bit too hot, so it took a fair old while to drink. There was a decent selection of biscuits on offer too.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – If I were to move to Clapham, I'd strongly consider it.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
It was a joy to be among brothers and sisters I'd never met before.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
Burgundy coloured mortar boards.