St Agnes, Kennington Park, London

St Agnes, Kennington Park, London


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Mystery Worshipper: Ecclesiastical Flip-flop
Church: St Agnes
Location: Kennington Park, London
Date of visit: Saturday, 24 May 2008, 12:00am

The building

This is the sixth church since the foundation of the parish. The congregation first worshipped in a shed on property occupied by a vitriol works. Construction began in 1875 on a neo-Gothic building by George Gilbert Scott, Jr, who also designed the Cambridge colleges of Christ's, Pembroke and Peterhouse. Scott's church was outfitted by his apprentice, Temple Lushington Moore, and included stained glass by Charles Eamer Kempe, one of the major figures of Victorian decorative art. That church, thought by many to be the finest Victorian church by the finest Victorian architect, was bombed in 1941, along with other churches in the area. Although not as badly damaged as some others, St Agnes was nevertheless demolished and replaced by the present building designed by the firm of Covell Matthews and Partners. Sir John Betjeman, noted for his nostalgia for Victorian architecture, dedicated the first edition of his Collins Guide to the English Parish Church to this and one other church, writing that the old St Agnes Church was "destroyed by the Diocese of Southwark after some war damage." The fittings of the present church are from the old, including the triptych reredos by Temple Moore said to be based on the golden reredos in the Church of Our Lady, Oberwesel in Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany.

The church

St Agnes has been Anglo-Catholic, as well as controversial, from its inception. Today St Agnes is a Forward in Faith church. Among the parish ministries and activities are Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament, Society of our Lady of Walsingham, Society of our Lady of Pew, Society of Mary, and Guild of St Raphael. Solemn mass is sung every Sunday and on holy days of obligation. Mass is celebrated every weekday except Mondays. The Rosary is prayed daily, and the sacrament of reconciliation is administered on Saturdays. The congregationis a racially mixed community, as is typical of South London, and they also appear to attract worshippers from near and far.

The neighborhood

The church is just off the Kennington Park Road, on the other side of the park. It is situated a short walk away from the Kennington underground station and is also served by several bus routes. The area is residential, with a variety of dwellings, and there are shops and offices as well.

The cast

Mass was celebrated in the presence of the Rt Revd Christopher Chessun, Bishop of Woolwich. The Revd Christopher Pearson, SSC, vicar, was the chief celebrant. There were 15 concelebrants, including the Revd Prebendary David Houlding, SSC, Master-General of the Society of the Holy Cross. Bishop Chessun was vested in cope and mitre and carried a crosier. Father Pearson wore a gold chasuble and the other concelebrants white chasubles. The deacon gospeller was vested in a dalmatic. A team of six servers wore cassocks and cottas, the latter edged with gilt. There were also two lectors in street clothes.

What was the name of the service?

Solemn Mass, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the rebuilding of the church following war damage by enemy action.

How full was the building?

Comfortably full, short of a tight squeeze.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Various people, including the bishop and the vicar, greeted me.

Was your pew comfortable?

Wooden pews, comfortable enough for me.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Chatty and unrestrained conversation; some pre-service organ music.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

The Angelus was prayed: "The angel of the Lord brought tidings to Mary..." This was followed by the hymn, "In our day of thanksgiving one psalm let us offer." Finally the mass itself began with the Sign of the Cross.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

A specially printed leaflet containing everything needed.

What musical instruments were played?

The organ. There was an unrobed choir in the gallery.

Did anything distract you?

The ornate reredos was a distraction. At one point a door was slammed. The first and last verses of the responsorial psalm were sung by a woman cantor with a strong Cockney accent – distinctive but somehow not quite right. The middle verse was taken by a different cantor, a male.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

It was a solemn concelebrated mass with incense, bells and ceremonial according to the novus ordo rite. The third eucharistic prayer was used ("Father, you are holy indeed...") Bearing in mind that Father Pearson is the superior general of the Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament, he knows his onions when it comes to a correct and orderly celebration of the mass. The mass was celebrated facing the people and it was 10 candle-power on the reredos behind the free-standing altar.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

20 minutes.

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

8 – Well organised, but average, ordinary and uneventful. He had notes in front of him. He included a quote from Archbishop Michael Ramsey and said something about his own recent visit to the United States.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

His text was 1 Kings 8:13 ("I have surely built thee a house of habitation, a place for thee to dwell in for ever.") Look around; look out; look up. We are a varied collection of individuals who serve the local community and witness to the world. We have a vocation to fulfill: to express to God the honour due him; to reach up to God in return for his love; to answer God's call to be his people. Worship of God is Trinitarian in unity of love. We are fed with the fullness of God. This year is the 175th anniversary of the Oxford Movement. Mindful of the differences dividing the Church, we must nevertheless stand up for the Catholic faith and for orthodoxy.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

It was heavenly all the way through. As I always say about a mass, the consecration is the nearest thing you can get to heaven in this world.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

I can truthfully say there was nothing hellish about any part of the service. With a sermon like that, it was all very far removed from the "other place." I did, however, feel somewhat sorry for the bishop, who seemed to be rather left out – he didn't even give the blessing at the end of the service. But speaking with the bishop afterward, it didn't seem to me that he felt particularly sorry for himself. He seemed satisfied to have said the prayer of dedication at the foundation stone at the west end of the church. No; for me the most hellish moment came at benediction, which had been announced as taking place at 4.00 that afternoon. After enjoying the top-rate after-service meal that had been set out (see below), I popped out for a bit and returned at 3.25, in plenty of time (or so I thought) for benediction. However, they had decided to have it at just after 3.00 instead, and I arrived just in time for the Tantum Ergo. I hate being late for a church service, but on this occasion the lateness was not my fault. I felt put out!

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

Looking lost!? What for!? This is Ecclesiastical Flip-Flop writing, and as my alias name suggests I get around from place to place. At a London church like that on such an occasion, there are people I know all around me. The hellos began outside walking to the church from the tube station.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Ample sumptuous refreshments had been prepared. I had two helpings of main courses, two different meat dishes with rice, and a portion of chocolate cake for pudding – all washed down with a glass of wine and quite satisfactory coffee afterward. A commemorative mug was given free of charge to each and every worshipper as they came away at the end of the proceedings.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

10 – This church would suit me down to the ground.

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

Absolutely, in every way.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

The sumptuous refreshments, although that was not the main reason for my being there.

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