Both the outside and the inside scream "Baptist chapel" at you. A classic piece of Victorian architecture, the white portico stands out on the high street from amongst the local shops. The main hall is dominated by the pipes of an organ (which wasn't used today) and a two-level elevated pulpit, though only the lower level was used in the service. There was also a balcony running around the edge, though this was mostly unused. A few plaques dotted the walls.
They prides themselves on their multicultural status, with 27 nationalities represented, which seems a fair reflection of the area. They run various ministries, including an Alpha course and a men's fellowship group.
The church is situated in the heart of Peckham, one of the most vibrant and diverse areas of South London. One remark in the sermon summed up the area thus: "We forget the price of things in Peckham because of the number of pound stores." (US readers, think 99¢ shops.) The area will be familiar to many a British television viewer through portrayals in the British TV sitcoms Desmond's and Only Fools and Horses in the 1980s and 1990s. The area has had some modernisation since then, most notably the new Peckham library, which won the Stirling Prize for architectural innovation in 2000.
The introduction and notices were given by deacon Rupert Hill. The worship was led by musical director Thea Wray. The sermon was given by the Revd Frank Goveia, pastor.
What was the name of the service?Carols by Sunlight.
How full was the building?
It was about three-quarters full, with around 100 people present.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
There was no one on the door, but as soon as I sat down, several people came over to shake my hand and say hello. I found the greetings very warm, yet unobtrusive. There was also an enforced exchanging of the peace at both the start and end of the service, where the welcome was further extended.
Was your pew comfortable?
We had fairly comfortable chairs, the kind that are fairly standard for modern Baptist churches. They had a little book box on the back of the chairs with a small hole cut in the wood to hold the individual communion cups.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quietly friendly. There was lots of greeting and exchanging of Christmas cards among the regulars while the worship band practised, thankfully not at a volume that hindered conversations.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning, everyone. It's good to have you all here."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
There were no books given out. All the words for the songs were put on a pair of overhead projectors. There were some copies of The Holy Bible: New International Version available for those who came without their own. These all looked reasonably well thumbed without being on the verge of falling apart.
What musical instruments were played?
We had a veritable mixed orchestra. The worship leader played keyboard, but was ably backed up with violins, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, a rather splendid-looking six-string bass guitar, saxophone and electric drums. At one point a harmonica put in an appearance.
Did anything distract you?
For reasons that were not entirely clear, there was a gentleman who seemed to be filming the whole service on a smartphone. He was just on the edge of my eyeline so caught my attention every time he swung around to capture the congregation.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was fairly middle-of-the-road Baptist, but with a slight Caribbean twist. As it was carols by sunlight (the few Advent candles didn't illuminate much on a sunny day) we stuck to fairly traditional Christmas carols, though one had an extra verse and some were sung in a slightly different manner than one might expect. Most notable was the rendition of "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel", which had a Jamaican twist to it and was one of the best I'd ever heard.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – The Revd Frank Goveia is a very serious preacher, with a great amount of gravitas, yet with a slightly joyful Caribbean twang in his accent. It was quite unusual for an Advent sermon, as it largely focused on Christ's sacrifice on the cross. It was a robustly Reformed message, with a strong challenge to all present.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Throughout Advent, the church was looking at the idea of peace, in this instance the "price of peace."
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The rendition of "O Come O Come Emmanuel" was superb. It's not one of the most common carols, and you tend to hear it in a very choral style. But this was sung very differently and it brought out a meaning to the words that I'd never considered before.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Near the start of the service, they asked anyone who was new to stand up, which slightly undid the warm welcome I had received. Thankfully there were a few of us, but it's never a good way to make people feel at ease. I couldn't wait to sit down again. I was also mildly annoyed by some typos on the overhead projector.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
The service ended as it began, with us offering peace to one another. Rather than being halted with people being told to take their seats, as happens in so many churches, it just petered out into gentle conversation. I spoke to several people and went to the back room for a cup of coffee.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
We had a commonly found brand served in a polystyrene cup. As someone who takes sugar in their coffee, I was aghast that the "hallowed spoon" principle wasn't observed, so the sugar was caked and one had to hack at it in order to extract a few granules. The end result was a tasteless black liquid that would only be described as coffee by someone more generous than I.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – If I lived in Peckham I would definitely consider coming back – but not for coffee!
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Absolutely. As a community, they not only love their neighbours, but they make their neighbours feel loved.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The warm yet not overbearing welcome.