St Botolph's, Lullingstone, Kent

St Boltolph's, Lullingstone, Kent, England


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Boltolph's
Location: Lullingstone, Kent, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 27 August 2017, 11:00am

The building

It could be described as small but perfectly formed. Built in the mid 14th century in the Decorated Gothic style, it has had a number of additions that give it a unique appearance from the outside. Once inside, one notices that the church is divided into two by a dark, elegantly carved rood screen. With the small size of the church, the ratio of the length of the nave to the chancel is most unusual. Behind the rood screen, one can glimpse an altar and a large tomb, the latter of which takes up most of the space on the south side of the chancel. Some of the plasterwork inside appears to be in need of a bit of repair.

The church

The church is one of three churches in the benefice of Eynsford with Farningham & Lullingstone. In spite of the sparse population within the parish, it acts as a community hub and the building is in use most days of the week. I was informed that the church hosts a variety of musical events, including a recent Elvis evening and, on a different occasion, singers from the choir of St Martins-in-the-Fields, London. On the day I visited, there was a baptism/christening (the terms were used interchangeably), so most of the people in the service were not regular attendees. The family had a link to the church, as the parents had been married at the church the year before.

The neighborhood

The church is situated on the lawn of Lullingstone Castle, a privately owned manor house built around the turn of the 16th century on the outskirts of Eynsford. Eynsford itself is a small village just outside London, a few miles west of the Brands Hatch motor racing circuit. The village mostly lies along the banks of the River Darent, a tributary of the Thames. The area also boasts a Roman villa and the ruins of the 11th century Eynsford Castle. In the 1920s, the Baptist church was subjected to the vocal onslaught of local resident and noted composer Ernest John Moeran, who, along with his housemate Peter Warlock, had something of a reputation for drunken revelry and scandalous living. Moeran would sing sea shanties to drown out the congregation while Warlock rode around the village naked on a motorbike.

The cast

The service was led by the rector of the benefice, the Revd Gary Owen.

What was the name of the service?

Matins with Baptism.

How full was the building?

It was absolutely packed. I couldn't see a spare seat anywhere. I reckon there were about 60 people in all.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

As I came in, I was asked, "Are you one of the party?" to which I responded "No." I was then handed a couple of books and leaflets.

Was your pew comfortable?

The pews all had thin cushions on them, but the seats weren't particularly deep, so one was constantly perching on the edge. There were kneeler cushions in front, though I didn't spot anyone using them. Leg space was at a bit of a premium.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

It was all very friendly and familiar, as it was evident that most people were there for the christening and were all friends and family of the parents. A few small children gave me some broad grins as I smiled back at them. With it being a predominantly family affair, they had all come to church very well dressed. The men were all in sharp suits and the women in elegant summer dresses. Having come in jeans and t-shirt, I felt very underdressed and a little out of place.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Good morning all. This is the warm up act," said the rector. Then, for the benefit of the many visitors, he gave a short precis of what was to come. This was followed by: "Good morning. Now we start properly."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

We were given a Book of Common Prayer (1662 edition) and a small copy of Hymns Ancient and Modern. The appearance of both books leaned far more towards the ancient than the modern. We also had a green booklet that contained the liturgy for morning prayer, in larger print than in the bound copy of the BCP. In addition to this, there was a weekly notice sheet that covered all the churches in the benefice. For the christening part of the service there was yet another leaflet, though I wasn't given one of these. Readings were from the Authorised Version of the Bible.

What musical instruments were played?

An organ.

Did anything distract you?

There were moments of being a bit bored, so I spent some time watching a small beetle walk along the wall towards me.

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

It was very traditional, but managed to be not too austere. Inasmuch as we used the 1662 BCP liturgy, the language was arcane and dry, but the rector kept the in-between parts light and gently humourous. As well as a few hymns, we also sang two psalms. The matins part of the service had the sense that it was a preamble to the christening, with few people really focusing on it, making it feel a little robotic. Once it was concluded with the grace, the service noticeably changed gear. This was the part that most of the guests had come for. As the child was not old enough to consent to being baptised, questions were asked of the parents and godparents.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

6 minutes.

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

7 – The rector spoke very clearly and made good eye contact with the congregation. He clearly meant to challenge those assembled, though he seemed a touch heavy-handed with the leading rhetorical questions.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

With reference to Acts 20:17-32 (Paul's parting words to the Ephesian elders), it was about how we evaluate our lives. We should serve God with humility and point people towards Jesus. We were asked where our lives were heading and what we were living for. God made us, loves us, and wants to be in relationship with us.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

During the christening itself, there was a palpable sense of joy. The child being christened was quite pleased with the water and wanted more to be splashed on her head.

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

The singing. With a church that was largely full of guests, one got the impression that most were not regular church attendees. Those few who attempted to sing mumbled at best, but to describe the sung worship as half-hearted would be very flattering.

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

I was tapped on the shoulder by one of the regular members of the congregation, who thanked me for having a decent singing voice. They had spotted that I was a visitor but (as I wasn't dressed to the nines) was clearly not part of the visiting family, who by this time had left for photographs on the lawn. I was introduced to several people and lent the use of a book that was full of photos of the church, with descriptions for each part – much of which can be found on the church website.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

It was quite all right. Not too hot. It was served in a nice mug. Nothing spectacular, but it helped to recaffeinate me. There was also a small selection of biscuits on offer.

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

6 – Most of the service had been considerably lower than what I prefer, but the friendliness of the congregation did much to redeem the situation. I'd like to go back for a more typical service, as this was not representative of the weekly life of the church.

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

I've got mixed feelings about this.

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

The very genial chats at the end of the service.

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