St Mary's is a rectangular early Georgian brown-brick box with white stone dressing at the corners and big clear windows (only one of stained glass, the Virgin Mary at the east end). There has been a church on this site since at least the 13th century, and Roman bricks have been found during restorations. St Mary's has an impressive clock tower, featuring more of those big windows. These give a view into the ringing chamber, from which eight bells have been rung since the mid-18th century. Its elegant spire is an important landmark, protected by law from being dwarfed out of sight by new construction (the clock must remain visible to mariners on the river!). The exterior of the present building looks much as it would have done when it was built in 1715 by John James, an associate of the more famous Christopher Wren. The interior was renovated in the 19th century, and contains many maritime features. The pillars are made of wooden masts covered in plaster, and there are furnishings made from timbers recovered from the HMS Temeraire, which fought in the Battle of Trafalgar. There's a scale model of the Mayflower (the ship that carried the Pilgrim Fathers to America in 1620) in the organ gallery, and the ship's captain, Christopher Jones, is buried in the churchyard.
The church website and pamphlets mention supporting a broad community and a range of charitable causes, both local and further afield, without elaborating. The parish has placed itself under the care of a provincial episcopal visitor (flying bishop), which means that they do not in conscience accept the ministry of women priests. The church is best known for its unique link with the Pilgrim Fathers. The church also maintains links with Clare College Cambridge, under whose patronage it has been since 1730, and has historic links with the Pacific island of Palau.
Rotherhithe is about a mile downstream of the iconic Tower Bridge, to its east on the south bank of the River Thames. The history of Rotherhithe is its charm and has probably been its salvation. At one time a busy maritime hub of wharves, docks, ship-builders and ship-breakers, it retains a unique sense of character. I walked along the Thames path, left Tower Bridge behind me, and was amazed to stumble upon the historic village of cobbled lanes and old buildings tucked in between former warehouses, now converted into modern apartments. On the riverbank at Rotherhithe there were once dozens of pubs. Now there is one: The Mayflower, where legend has it Christopher Jones downed a last London pint before starting his epic journey to America. Rotherhithe is also home to the southern end of three tunnels under the river, including the original Thames Tunnel, the first underwater tunnel in the world, built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the civil engineer famous for his bridges, steamships, railways, and many engineering "firsts". I can't do justice to the history here, but I encourage you at least to look at the stories and pictures on the church's website.
The Rt Revd John Broadhurst, Bishop of Fulham, preached. The Rt Revd Christopher Chessun, Suffragan Bishop of Woolwich in the Diocese of Southwark, conducted the ceremonial aspects of the induction and installation, along with the Venerable Dr Michael Ipgrave, Archdeacon of Southwark. The Revd Dr Gregory Seach, Dean of Clare College Cambridge, presented St Mary's new rector to the bishop during the ceremony, and read the second lesson. There was also a vast altar party (I counted 26 in total) including four child acolytes, a bewigged verger (!?) who read the Old Testament lesson, the former dean of Clare College (I believe), and numerous assistant priests, wardens, etc. The Rotherhithe and Bermondsey Choral Society, conducted by Sue Heath-Downey, sang from the organ gallery.
What was the name of the service?The Institution and Induction of The Revd Mark Nicholls as Rector of this Parish. (He had been priest-in-charge for some years, but this was finally to grant him the "living" as "incumbent".)
How full was the building?
About half full. The church is not huge, but the majority of the congregation filled the pews toward the back, leaving the front three or four pews on the left completely empty, and with only a few brave souls sitting near the front on the right. I would guess maybe 50 people, almost double if you count the altar party, ushers and the choir.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Three women, one after another, all very smiley. The first handed me the order of service, and the next two just checked that I had it and smiled.
Was your pew comfortable?
Just an old wooden pew, but there was enough standing that it was fine.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The church bells were ringing. I heard them as I approached. People were arriving, chatting among themselves. The clergy were busy, back and forth between the chancel and presumably the vestry. Eventually they all assembled in the northeast corner and a bell rang to signal the start of the service. Everyone stood up and faced south. It took me a moment to understand why!
What were the exact opening words of the service?
Father Nicholls sang: "The angel of the Lord declared to Mary" and so we sang the Angelus responsorially, facing a statue of the Virgin Mary as the Queen of Heaven, stepping out of a white-curtained alcove in the wall, surrounded by 14 tall candles. Then we faced east and sang the first hymn, "Holy light on earth's horizon," while the procession made its way down the north aisle and up the centre aisle and found their places. Then the Bishop of Woolwich introduced the service with the words: "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." So that set the tone!
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The order of service handed out at the door contained all we needed.
What musical instruments were played?
The organ. It's a John Byfield instrument, paid for by public subscription and installed in 1764. Details and photos are on the website. It is in a gallery at the back of the nave.
Did anything distract you?
Counting the tall candles. There was one 24-branch chandelier in the centre of the nave, and 12-branch chandeliers over the north and south aisles, with real candles burning in them! I counted 14 around the statue of the Queen of Heaven, a big six on the high altar, with two more in the corner and two more on the forward altar. I couldn't count all the votive candles in front of small shrines and on the pricket. And there were probably some I couldn't see. There was also a confusion of silverware chalices and plates, propped up behind the candles on the high altar. Father Nicholls made a joke about the "family silver" he'd just inherited after his ceremony of induction.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was extremely formal, or tried to be. You can't get much higher, but it wasn't tightly enough choreographed to be stiff, and there were a few attempts at humour. The involvement of such a huge altar party in such a small space made it chaotic enough to be human. There were, after all, two coped-and-mitred bishops, and lots of vested clergy. There was plenty of holy smoke as well. The altar was censed during the singing of the Magnificat, and then the priests and people were all censed with all the appropriate bowing.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
2 – I had expected the Bishop of Fulham to mount the pulpit, and I think it would have helped, especially as the majority of the people were seated toward the back of the church. He stood on the floor, however, and addressed quite a few of his comments, particularly when he was trying to be funny, toward the clergy in the chancel. So it was quite hard to hear him. And he started with what seemed like a theme, made an astonishing side-trip, and then came back to the beginning at the end. Read on!
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The bishop began by contrasting lines from the readings: Exodus 3:1-6 (Moses and the burning bush) and Acts 1:4-14 (the Ascension). He said that Moses hid his face from God but the "men of Jerusalem" who witnessed the Ascension kept staring up into the sky. Then suddenly he got personal, addressing Father Nicholls directly about the costs of ministry and how they were all "approaching middle age" (ha ha). Then, just as suddenly, he went distinctly sideways, saying how unfortunate it was that Ian Ramsey, Bishop of Durham, had died in office in 1972. History might have been different had Bishop Ramsey lived to be called to Canterbury. We might never have had "dear Bob" (he was referring to Robert Runcie, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1980 to 1991, who had presided over the discussions that led to the eventual ordination of women in the Church of England in 1994.) And then, as suddenly as he had changed course, he came back to the initial theme and gave a few examples from the Old and New Testament of being blinded by God. He told us the message is not to stand gawking, but rather to go out into the world and get on with life as Christians. Father Nicholls' task is to lead people to Jesus. But it takes a community to make a good parish, not just a good priest.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The singing. And there was lots of it. The Angelus took me by surprise at the start, but was lovely. This was followed by a hymn. Then the opening responses were sung, and we went immediately into another hymn (standing). Two psalms ensued (we remained seated) and a canticle (we were still seated, which I thought odd). Then the choir sang Ave Maria. That was all before the first reading! After that we sang the Magnificat. After the sermon, the choir sang a Monteverdi anthem. It was really heavenly, with the choir above and behind us in the gallery.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
I was shocked at that comment about Archbishop Runcie in the middle of the sermon.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
At the end of the service, Father Nicholls announced refreshments "across the street and through the gates." So I went across, and it was pink champagne and nibbles on a terrace right on the river at sunset. It was glorious. I chatted to a couple of people about the lovely service, and how surprising an oasis of history the neighbourhood is, and the price of property these days as one does. Nobody asked my name, and I didn't ask theirs.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Clearly it would be different after a typical Sunday service, though they were celebrating their patronal festival the next day, so it might have been wine again!
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
I can't rate it. I have stared at the screen long enough. It's either a 10 or a 0. The church was fascinating, the liturgy was lovely, and the location was amazing. However, until we don't need provincial episcopal visitors any more, I can only be a visitor at some of the most sumptuous services in the land.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
The service, yes. The sermon, on the other hand...
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The Angelus, I hope. Or the champagne on the river bank.