There has been a church on this site for 1000 years, give or take. It's the oldest building in Streatham. The current structure dates from 1350, with a major Victorian renovation. Badly damaged in 1975 by a fire fanned by a strong wind, the chancel bares its wounds proudly against stark white walls and a modern roof and galleries. The east window is new and tells the story of the church over the centuries, but the body of the church is striking for its plain unadorned whiteness. It's lovely. There is a nice modern chapel at the back, with glass walls onto the nave, and a tiny side chapel in the north aisle with a simple triptych icon of St Leonard and St Laura, the latter being the untimely-deceased daughter of a former vicar, if I understood correctly.
I think this report demonstrates one huge element of community involvement, but there are others. It's an inclusive church with a devotion to Anglican liturgy and music that genuinely attempts to marry ancient and modern. The congregation span all generations and many races and set an example that it would be nice to see some more centrally located churches emulate.
St Leonard's sits at a busy corner on the London to Brighton road, across the street from an equally impressive Roman Catholic church, so from a distance they create a double landmark. Streatham (pronounced Strettam, colloquially called Saint Reetham) is five miles south of central London and is registered in the Domesday Book. It used to be well out in the Surrey countryside, but today it is deep south London (i.e., not the posh part). Streatham suffers from the south London curse of being off the Underground map, so it doesnt get a lot of tourists, but there are three overground rail stations, and the coming of the railways caused a massive population boom in the 19th century, and for a while St Leonard's was actually a fashionable house of worship. Streatham is now a multicultural community, and that is an understatement. The church sits at the bottom of a very long hill leading down from Brixton towards Croydon. The shops and pubs and restaurants that line both sides of the road in both directions are mostly small businesses, with only a few of the predictable chains, and none of the ones that don't move in until the neighbourhood is gentrified. However, they are all in business I didn't notice any boarded-up shops. Germane to this report is the fact that there are two major prisons nearby (Brixton and Wandsworth) and that places the church in the catchment area for the recently released.
The Revd Mandy Hodgson, rector, celebrated. Dame Anne Owers, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons, preached. There were also three assistant priests and a considerable altar party of acolytes and servers, but I'm afraid these must remain nameless.
What was the name of the service?St Leonard's Day Eucharist 2010 - the church's patronal festival service.
How full was the building?
Respectably full. There were probably as many empty seats as full ones, but the people were scattered so there were no huge gaps, at least in the central aisles. I would estimate about 70 in the congregation, with another 20 or so comprising the choir and altar party.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes, indeed, but not just to the service. St Leonard is the patron saint of prisoners, and the church used the occasion of its patronal festival this year to showcase organisations working locally and nationally with prisoners and ex-prisoners and for penal reform. Several of these groups had tables at the back of the church for an hour before the service, and they were all very ready to welcome visitors.
Was your pew comfortable?
There are no pews possibly lost in the fire in 1975 and the linked upholstered chairs, in a sad shade of beige, looked as if they dated from the morning after. Any padding they may have contained has been compressed over the years, and I didn't see one that wasn't in dire need of deep cleaning or reupholstering. They were still fit for purpose and comfortable enough, but they just made the place look unnecessarily dingy. There were hooks on the backs of the chairs, but no kneelers, so no kneeling was done although it was indicated in the service sheet.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The church was busy, with everyone milling round the prison groups' displays. Gradually, as the service time approached and vested people started moving things around, the people took to their seats and a woman went around ensuring everyone had service sheets.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good evening and welcome." This was the signal to get people to sit down. Then: "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?
There was an order of service specific to the evening, which included a few pages at the front with contact details for all the prison relief organisations taking part in the evening, as well as some that weren't represented, such as the two local actual prisons.
What musical instruments were played?
Organ. According to the website, the present two-manual tracker-action organ was built by JW Walker & Sons and installed at the west end of the gallery in 1979, the previous Walker organ having been destroyed in the 1975 fire. According to one of the assistant priests, this was one of the fortunate results of the fire. There was also a 10-strong mixed choir.
Did anything distract you?
There was a motion-sensitive light outside one of the windows on the south side that flashed on and off randomly, as the churchyard is a well-used local shortcut.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The high side of the middle of the road. The service was formal but warm and engaging, with enthusiastic singing. The very first thing that happened, during the processional hymn, was the censing of an icon of St Leonard in a side chapel. There was lots of incense, and an abundance of vested clergy and robed servers. The celebrant wore a simple, elegant gold chasuble with a red lining, while two of the assistant priests wore glorious gold copes.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
13 minutes. The sermon was a continuation of the tradition known as the Howland sermon. Elizabeth Howland (d. 1719), whose memorial to her husband dominates the church porch, bequeathed a sum of money for a sermon to be preached annually.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 – Dame Anne was very interesting; she spoke clearly, knows her subject, and had a strong message. Drawing on her decade of experience as Chief Inspector of Prisons, she drove her points home with a voice of authority.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
In a nutshell, our prisons are a mirror of society at large. They reflect in their populations our collective issues of family breakdown, isolation, mental health problems, inequality, and so on. We need to sort out these problems in the society outside the prison walls in order to solve and ideally prevent the same problems inside. Prisoners are the ultimate outsiders in our society, often before they get locked up. We lock them up out of sight because we are disturbed and challenged by outsiders. Even prison officers are not given the same respect as other public service professionals such as teachers, nurses and the police. Women in prison often say that the first time they ever got access to the help they needed was inside, and young people in prison especially experience life in a parallel universe. At the time of judgement, we will be called to account for what we have failed to do to support those members of society who needed food and drink, clothing, shelter and companionship.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
I really respected that they had used the occasion of their patronal festival to invite in so many charities and voluntary groups who work in the area, and that those people stayed for the service and participated. It was a living demonstration of a church that is truly striving to engage, and a community that appreciates that engagement. And a fun moment came at the end of the service, when the rector presented the preacher with a bunch of flowers. She explained that the original bequest for the annual Howland sermon was for a payment of 40 shillings for the guest speaker, but that only translates to two pounds in today's money, so she thought a bouquet would be more appropriate!
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
I don't mind a light, bright sunny church, but this was a late autumn evening, and there were literally dozens of very bright spotlights, giving rather the atmosphere of a fast-food outlet at night. Dimming the lights and reupholstering the chairs would do a lot for the aesthetics of the church, in my opinion.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
During the organ postlude, a convoy of people moved in and loaded a table with wine and soft drinks and various trays and plates of savoury treats. The prison charities went back to their tables and continued to explain their work to people, drinks in hand, while children circulated with trays of cheese straws and savoury nibbles. It was very convivial, and a couple of people initiated conversations with me outside of that context as well. It felt very welcoming.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
This was a festal service, so there was a feast. Wine and juice and nibbles. I don't know what the normal Sunday fare would be, but I am sure it would exist and the sense of conviviality would prevail.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – I enjoyed the evening and the people I met. By the natural light of day, it would suit me very well.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, it did. The theme of the evening was printed alongside an image on the service sheet of a prisoner in chains: "I was a prisoner and..." It was wonderful to see so many doing so much to live the message of Matthew 25:31-46 "Whatever you did for one of the least of these..." Several of the charities had materials featuring testimonials from the prisoners and ex-prisoners whose lives had been changed through the charities' ministries in practical, not evangelical ways.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The prisoners' testimonials. St Leonard would have been pleased.