In a word, it is historic. St Dunstan's is one of the largest medieval churches in London, although its roots are much older than the middle ages. There has been a stone church on this site for more than a thousand years, and frailer wooden ones before then. The bulk of the existing building dates from the 15th century, with recent renovations, but the chancel contains a thousand-year old Saxon stone carving of the Crucifixion. The church has been dedicated to St Dunstan (patron saint of silversmiths and bellringers inter alia) since his canonisation in 1029. Appropriately, the church has an acclaimed ring of ten bells, which feature in the nursery rhyme "Oranges and Lemons" ("When will that be?" say the bells of Stepney). The east window depicts the Crucifixion, but not with the typical background landscape of Golgotha, but rather a scene from the surrounding bomb-ravaged East End of London.
St Dunstan's has links with two local church schools, and is open every day of the week for mass. This church used to hold responsibility for the registration of British births and deaths at sea, and was known as the Mother Church of the High Seas. It still contains carvings and art with a maritime theme. The Arbour Youth Centre dates from the Second World War and provides a drop-in centre on weekdays for children, young people and parents. The church provides rehearsal space for the Thames Chamber Choir, and will be hosting an exhibition by a local artist in the spring.
The church itself would have formed the centre of the original medieval village of Stepney, three or four miles northeast of central London. The area sustained massive damage during the blitz in the Second World War, and today is a community where immigrants are in the majority. The impact of population shift is evident in the relatively small Christian congregations and closing of pubs. There is a community farm across the road, where the local people in this east-London urban setting have a chance to see farm animals and buy fresh produce.
The Revd Trevor Critchlow, rector, led the service. The Revd Christine Hall, assistant priest, preached. The Revd Chris Morgan, assistant curate, served as deacon. There were two other assistant clergy, one male and one female, whose names I didn't work out, and a pair of acolytes.
What was the name of the service?Mass of Christmas Day.
How full was the building?
Half-full, maybe. The congregation were scattered, not packed, so most pews had some occupants. I'd guess maybe 80 people were there, but they had had a crib service and midnight mass on Christmas Eve as well, and the relentless rain was tipping down, both of which may have reduced the congregation.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
A woman handed me an order of service and a copy of the Bethlehem Carol Sheet, a colour-printed booklet containing the lyrics to 26 Christmas carols. Then another sideswoman approached me with the same material, so they were certainly ensuring everyone got a greeting.
Was your pew comfortable?
It was a normal pew, and there were pads for kneeling. It was fine, given all the standing, sitting and kneeling going on.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The bells were ringing before the service. It was busy but calm inside, with dozens of tea-light candles being lit. There was a pretty Christmas tree in the chancel.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Just the two handouts the order of service and the charity hymn brochure mentioned above.
What musical instruments were played?
Did anything distract you?
There was a children's play area off to one side of the pews in the nave, and some of the children were quite noisy, notably a couple of little girls enjoying clacking in high-heeled sandals on the wooden floor, and one who had evidently just learned to whistle.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
There were bells and smells at appropriate points in the service. However, Christmas morning is too joyous a time to be stiff, and the exchanging of the peace was very friendly. The altar party were vested in lovely chasubles, three gold and two white, and there were a couple of acolytes in albs. I would call it relaxed and inclusive high church.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – The Revd Christine Hall was well prepared. The sermon was carefully structured, simple but sensible and appropriate to the day.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
She started by talking about how well we know the Nativity story, but how sanitised it has become in our imaginations, with a clean stable inhabited by the friendly donkey and peaceful oxen, and how we use our modern imagination of a pastoral shepherd with his sheepdog, when in fact the shepherds of Biblical times were outcasts, sinners. But God is a God of surprises, and from that funny dirty stable came the one who would welcome the outcast.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The organist played the most astonishing postlude - a medley of snatches of one Christmas carol after another, including even The Twelve Days of Christmas. It was delightful.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Well, I hate to say it of the day we celebrate the birth of the Christ child, but the unruly children at key moments in the service were a bit much. Neither they nor their parents could have been getting anything from it, so I couldnt help wondering, why bother?
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
There was nothing evident. I sat through the lovely postlude, and nobody spoke to me.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
None evident, but I suspect with this being the last service of the season, people had had enough mince pies and it was time go home to the biggest meal of the year.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
10 – I loved it: the building, the bells, the high-church liturgy with clearly inclusive policies. If I lived in the East End of London I would definitely want to join this church.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. It was very affirming.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
That stained-glass window of the bombed East End, perhaps, or the entertaining organist.