Presenting as a typical Kent medival ragstone church, St Mary's was rebuilt in the early 13th century; remnant stones suggest that an earlier church stood on this site. The church has heavy buttresses, which indicates that a vault was intended but never built. There are six bells in the tower, which date back to 1605 and which were rung for the service. The interior features several decorations, including a beautiful brass plate on the floor depicting a medival knight, Robert de Septvans (c 1322), which has its own history corner and a replica that one can use for rubbings. There are also some beautiful stained glass windows. The church has been developed over recent years, including installation of an internal porch area in 1985 and an extension housing an accessible toilet, which from the outside blends beautifully with the original building. The churchyard has been landscaped to make a large greenspace. The floors throughout (apart from the quire) are flat and the movable seats make the space accessible.
St Mary's has a regular Sunday communion at 10.00am; on the first Sunday of the month this is a family communion. In addition, there is an 8.00am Book of Common Prayer communion on the first and fifth Sundays; an evening service on the third Sunday; and an evening prayer meeting on the second Wednesday. There is a choir; bellringers (who rehearse on Thursday evenings); Lite Lunch Club; Coffee and Cake Concerts; foodbank collection point; and more. The church is often open to the public (there is a notice saying they need more volunteers for this). There is a Flower Festival at the end of the month, which will coincide with a performance of John Rutter's Requiem. The Friends of St Mary's helps with the upkeep and fundraising for the building, and they are keen to keep the church a community space.
St Mary's is a Kent country parish, which means that there is a parish council, rather than a town council, to run the village. This usually means that there is a huge community feel, and Chartham is no exception to this. There is a village hall opposite, and a well-maintained fun playground including an outdoor gym for grown-ups. There is also a good car park with four hours free parking for non-permit holders. The railway crossing features a manned signal box and level crossing gates (an actual person comes out and puts the gates across the road when a train comes). There is a local country walk route that incorporates nearby sites. Finally, there is a pub called the Artichoke; local shops; and plenty of beautiful Kentish houses.
The vicar, the Revd Phil Brown, is on holiday at the moment, so the service was led by Churchwarden Robin Slowe using the reserved Sacrament.
What was the name of the service?Family Communion.
How full was the building?
The church is quite a small building, with the nave having 13 seats across in each row, but most of the rows were at least half full, so the church looked comfortably full. There must have been about 50-60 people in the congregation, plus choir and staff.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes. We were welcomed at the door with a friendly hello. It was rather confusing, though, as our arrival coincided with several cyclists who were on a tour of the area, "having a look round," so the welcomers weren't sure if we were with them or coming in for the service.
Was your pew comfortable?
Very comfortable wooden seats with thick red-cloth cushioned bases enabled us to sit without problem for the service. The seat in front had a good sized holder for our books.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Rather hectic, as above. As we pushed our way through the touristy crowd, we were asked a couple of times if we were staying or just visiting. The air was still very friendly and welcoming, as the members of the church came across as very glad to have the visitors.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning and welcome to our service of holy communion. Please be seated; I've got a few things to say."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Hymns Old & New (green book; Kevin Mayhew) and a church-produced Common Worship Order 1 were handed to us when we arrived, and there were copies of The Holy Bible, New International Version in the seats. There was also a screen at the front. Mr Slowe explained that we were free to choose to use the screen or our books, whichever was most comfortable, which I thought was very inclusive (and Husband was OK with the screen today because he'd forgotten his glasses).
What musical instruments were played?
Peter Thomas played the organ, newly upgraded, with electronic stops being added to improve the capability. There was also a robed choir.
Did anything distract you?
The most distracting thing today was the fact that Child does not like peach yoghurt. I was told this no fewer than five times during the first hymn. I was also distracted by the lovely monument in the south transept and the general decoration of the building I enjoyed looking around at the stained glass windows. I had to be mindful that (because I do not like screens) whenever I was singing or reciting words that I knew well, I should not look in the screen's direction, just in case someone mistook me for reading from it.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The service was a lovely, middle-of-the-road Anglican service, using David Thorne's Mass of St Thomas. But being a reserved Sacrament, the wine was almost water.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – Churchwarden Robin Slowe spoke very well without waffling or using flowery imagery, so he was easy to follow and understand.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Today's gospel reading was Jesus meeting the disciples' boat on the stormy water, so Mr Slowe talked about how this came about. Jesus had had a very busy and tiring day and wanted to be alone, but when the storm raged, he went by the most direct route to help his friends. He knew they were frightened and that they didn't know he would arrive by foot, so he shouted to them as he settled the storm. Peter's faith was very strong he waited until Jesus called him to get out of the boat, rather than rushing toward him; but he lost sight of Jesus and fell. Jesus must have been very frustrated that Peter didn't demonstrate his complete faith, but he must have had huge faith to get as far as he did. Mr Slowe continued by comparing this to our own situations. We sometimes feel lost at sea, looking for a lighthouse to guide us and reassure us. God is always there but we have to ask for help. Jesus knocks on the door and we have to open it to welcome him in. Jesus will help us to find the strength for any situation if we pray for his help.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
I detest the music of Graham Kendrick, so was dismayed to find "The Servant King" in the hymn list. However, I was astonished to find this was my heaven moment! When it came to verse three: "There in the garden of tears ...", the organist drew the most perfect combination of stops and volume to create a stunning effect, which he continued and elaborated on in the following chorus. The effect made me burst into tears!
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
I love the Mass of St Thomas, but I was upset that the choir didn't sing the descant parts in the Gloria, especially because I did and stuck out like a sore thumb! The organist didn't play them either! They are written into the organ score, so he had to leave them out deliberately. They also didn't sing the Agnus Dei, which is Child's favourite song ever. I feel awful about having to go on about the music, but I have to if I'm going to produce an honest report. The choir sang "My Song is Love Unknown" (to the tune Love Unknown by John Ireland) as a choir anthem, which had the potential to be gorgeous. However, they sang it with no emotion at all, not even using volume as dynamic. It came across as flat and too cheerful, which is totally wrong for such an emotive piece.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
We stayed seated for the organ recessional and were trying to count how many seats there were. A man came and asked us if we'd lost Child, as we looked worried. We were also greeted by other members of the congregation who chatted for a while and invited us to have a coffee. Mr Slowe came to say hello and engaged us in general conversation. Another lady welcomed us to look around at the historical artifacts and take photos, especially of the Robert de Septvans brass, which is cordoned off in the north transept.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
The tea was very nice, served in china cups from a tea pot. No chocolate biscuits (which was Child's hell moment, there being no peach yoghurt to be had), but I found a hiding custard cream and was happy with that!
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 – We haven't got a regular church at the moment and are thoroughly enjoying our tour, but this is definitely on our list to recommend to others.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
That they made me cry to a Graham Kendrick song.