The building, by architect Kenton Couse, who is best known for the front of 10 Downing Street, was opened for worship in 1776. It was expanded in 1792 when John Venn was rector and many people came to hear him preach. (Venn is probably best known for being a member of the social reform group known as the Clapham Sect and one of the founders of the Church Missionary Society.) Its a nice building, quite large, with a gallery on three sides and an impressive organ at the front. There is also some lovely stained glass. The mahogany communion table dates from John Venn's time. As worship styles changed, the box pews were reduced in height in 1875 and the church was rearranged in order to accommodate a choir. A new font was installed, and novelist EM Forster was the first person to be baptised at it.
William Wilberforce, one of the champions of the abolitionist movement in England and co-founder of the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, was a worshipper here. As was mentioned during the service, this church has a history of Christian heroes. Today the church seems to have a lot going on, including a monthly Taiz service, Sunday School, sports events, toddlers groups, prayer meetings, and a support group for persons who have suffered abuse. There are two morning services and an evening service each week, and there is also a service coming up at a local nursing home. Other things mentioned in the notice sheet included training people to be "street pastors."
Clapham is a popular area of south London famous for its common. The centre is quite busy with lots of shops and bars, and surrounding roads have residential properties. Many of the locals work in central London due to its short commuting distance.
The rector, the Revd Canon David Isherwood, had been taken ill, so the service was led by a gentleman named Miles. He didnt give his surname, but I believe he was the Revd Miles Blackley, who is a member of the congregation. The preacher was the Revd Canon Andrew White, chaplain of St George's, Baghdad, Iraq. (St George's is the only remaining Anglican church in Baghdad, and Canon White is known locally as the Vicar of Baghdad.)
What was the name of the service?Parish Communion
How full was the building?
Very busy. Not quite full, but its a large church. The ground floor was packed, and there were about 30 people up in the gallery as well. I got the impression that they werent quite used to having so many people there, and there were all sorts of instructions to ensure everyone got communion and coffee, and the church warden mentioned how nice it was to see so many people.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Parking was a bit of a problem (see below). But once we arrived at the church, yes. There was a very friendly lady giving out service sheets, who kindly told us where the toilets were! We were there quite early, but there were already a number of people waiting at the door to welcome people, and all smiled at us as we entered.
Was your pew comfortable?
No. Well, it was OK for me, but Mrs Charles found it very uncomfortable. There was no support for her lower back, and as the pews were boxed in, we had to climb over people when returning from communion. Being 62, I was impressed with the very generous leg room.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quite noisy: lots of chatting and a gentleman at the front testing the microphone. I now feel confident counting to four, having been taught this several times by the sound man. At one time it looked as if there was going to be quite a disappointing crowd, but it filled up rapidly just before the service started.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning, everyone. I hear the Northern Line isnt working from Kennington onwards," referring to the mornings transport problems and thanking the organist for getting there despite him having to return home from the station and pick up his car.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised Edition. We were referred to this for the readings. There was also a printed service sheet containing the liturgy and the words to todays hymns, as well as a notice sheet.
What musical instruments were played?
A rather nice medium-sized organ, a 1910 opus of Alfred Hunter Organ Builder, renovated and enlarged in 1984 and again in 2004 by Vincent Coggin of Terrington St Clement, Norfolk. Plenty big enough for the church, and played very well by Michael Hodges. Actually, I was particularly taken by the organ playing, which was of a very high standard.
Did anything distract you?
There were a few microphone problems, and at times we couldnt hear when the speaker forgot to talk into the microphone. The Revd Miles Blackley had only taken this service once before, usually being a worshipper at their evening service. There was a little confusion about sitting and standing at various times. At once point he announced, "My heart is in the right place even though the service is in the wrong order." This made me laugh out loud!
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Kind of average. Everyone was robed and the service began and ended with a procession down the aisle following a gentleman holding a metal cross. In that way it seemed quite formal. However, the actual service and the way people spoke was much more relaxed. It was a nice balance.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
10 – Canon Andrew White had a very nice style of preaching. Obviously, he was preaching on a very serious subject: of all the atrocities being committed by ISIS in Iraq. His sermon was at times heartbreaking, for example when he told of a child hed baptised having been cut in half, yet at the same time he managed to mix in some humour, a message of hope, and solid Bible teaching. Very, very good. He got a chuckle by explaining that "I might be an Anglican but I still believe God created the world!"
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Pray for the people of Iraq for "provision, protection and perseverance" in these difficult times. Iraq was the place where God first revealed himself, as it was (he said) the location of the Garden of Eden. In the midst of all the persecution, the people of Iraq still pray and they sing hymns in the local language and the one English song they know: "Ive Got The Love Of Jesus In My Heart." [Whereupon he began singing this and the whole church got through a verse or two a cappella then back to the sermon.] The situation is worse than we see on TV, yet Jesus is wonderful and the people remain strong in their faith. ISIS are terrorists, and most Muslims do not condone what they are doing.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The sermon itself was very moving. Although there are terrible things going on in Iraq, Canon White showed the good things going on, such as the amazing faith of Christians there, healings, a girl being raised from the dead, and the many Muslims who are sympathetic to the plight of Iraqi Christians.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
It wasnt during the service so much as what happened before. We came by car and were looking for somewhere to park. The signs on the street outside were a little ambiguous, in one place saying it was free on a Sunday, yet on the ticket machine saying it was 3 per hour. I moved the car to somewhere with clearer signage, and was still slightly relieved not to have picked up a parking fine.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
It was a special service, with the Vicar of Baghdad preaching, so many people were not regulars. There were a number of coffee stations set up and many people milling around. We chatted to a few people who, like us, were visitors. I was also interviewed by the BBC London News about what I thought of the sermon, which was an unusual thing to happen after a church service.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
My coffee was a bit strong. Mrs Charles had some nice elderflower cordial. The chocolate biscuit was nice.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – Its hard to say, having not been to a "regular" service, but the Revd Miles Blackley had a nice style that I really warmed to. The music was good and the service itself felt very sincere. If I lived locally I would be happy attending this church.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, very much so. This was a truly inspiring service where I could really feel the Lords presence. The combination of a big crowd, good music, thoughtful service and excellent preaching made me feel very glad to be a Christian. At the same time, I felt sad to hear about the terrible time our brothers and sisters in Iraq are having.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
"My heart is in the right place even though the service is in the wrong order."