St Mary's, Bromley (Exterior)

St Mary's Plaistow, Bromley, Kent, England


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Mary's Plaistow
Location: Bromley, Kent, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 2 July 2017, 10:30am

The building

Described as "one of the ugliest unfinished churches near London" by the Evening Standard when it was rather new in 1875, this church is unusual in its design. It was actually built with the intention of being enlarged – so from the outside it's a mish-mash of sections. The first part to be built was the nave (1863); then the chancel, organ chamber and vestries were added (starting 1879); followed in 1891 by the south transept and the narthex (a random porch area on the end of the south transept) – which was originally intended to be the main entrance to the church, and now houses the toilet. Then in 1892 there came the fleche (little spire on the roof) and an enlarged roof, which helped ventilation.
But it doesn't end there! In 1898, a north transept, north porch and enlarged vestries were started. After that, most of the works were decorational. The church has some gobsmackingly stunning painted murals around the chancel, beautiful story-telling stained-glass windows, and some exquisite woodwork, including the reredos, altar, and organ case. But the church was re-ordered in 1913, with a chancel screen and gates being fitted; and again in 1963, when the south transept pews were removed, creating a chapel that is now used as the children's area; and in 1985 when the nave altar was installed. Finally, the main entrance porch was built in 1997. This porch is slate rooved and glass sided and so creates an inviting weatherproof entrance. The floor of the whole church is level, with the nave altar being accessible all around.

The church

They hold two services every Sunday: a 10.30am family communion (except once a month, currently the second Sunday, when there is an all-age service where the young people lead the worship) and a 6.30pm choral evensong (this is holy communion when the morning service isn't). There is a robed choir, who sing every week both morning and evening (except for the all-age service). There are Sunday Clubs for all ages of children, all with imaginative names. As well as Sunday services, there is a monthly Messy Church session, a baby and toddler group (called BATS) on a Thursday, and a full complement of Guiding and Scouting groups. There is even a leaflet produced by the church to detail all these children's provisions to new families. It's not just the children who are catered to – there is an active Mothers' Union; a team for the magazine; other church groups; concerts; involvement with Churches Together in Bromley; and there are lots of other community projects happening that the church joins in with. They are currently working on opening during the week for visitors, and are improving the functionality of the rear of the church building to accommodate this.

The neighborhood

Bromley is a suburb of London, straight up the A2 in Kent. It's technically Kent, but it is a London borough. That means that it's an urban sprawl of houses and road systems (with some dreadful junctions and traffic light systems). There's a definite sense that it would be very easy to get lost in this area. Plaistow itself seems to be a "local name" rather than an official area, with the church being close to Plaistow Green, right in the middle. There's no obvious centre to this suburb, as it seems to have grown by itself, but there are scatterings of groups of shops, schools, and all the usual provisions. Parking is mainly on-street, but it's not restricted on a Sunday.

The cast

The service was conducted by the vicar, the Revd Alan Keeler, and the curate, the Revd Ruth Peet. Today's organist was Robin Field.

What was the name of the service?

Family Communion.

How full was the building?

The building seemed very empty indeed – it should seat over 500 according to the guide book, but there were about 40 in the congregation, plus the choir, servers, priests and Sunday school.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

The sidespeople and vicar, separately, welcomed us in the porch. The sidespeople then gave us service information, but they had to fight to get past the vicar to reach us! Immediately the Child was spotted, we were invited to take part in the Sunday Club, introduced to the leaders, and taken over to the hall. I was allowed/encouraged to stay with Child until she was settled. The Sunday Club meets 10 minutes before the service starts, which is great for newcomers, as we can settle our children and still not miss the start. During the peace, almost everyone in church greeted us with vigorous handshakes and warm peace wishes.

Was your pew comfortable?

Lovely long Victorian pews, where we sat perfectly cradled by the well-worn wood. No cushions, but really, we didn't need them.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

It seemed very quiet when we first got into the church building. In such a large building, the sound didn't seem to carry at all, although the sound system proved to be excellent. So I suppose I will conclude it was quiet and unhurried. Certainly we didn't notice other people arrive. There was no rush to get seated, no rush or hubbub to start, and there was plenty of time for the organist to play a bit of Faure's Requiem before the service began.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"The Lord be with you. Good morning and welcome to St Mary Plaistow for our family communion."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

We were given a church-produced copy of the Common Worship booklet; a two page news sheet with readings and notices; and the Sunday Link, a newsletter mass-produced that you can add your own notices to the back. The hymn books (the original Hymns Old and New before it became "complete Anglican" and politically correct) were already in the pews, as were copies of the New English Bible. I couldn't see any large print versions, but the notice sheet said they were available.

What musical instruments were played?

The music was played on the 1882 Hill organ, enlarged and rebuilt by Rushworth and Dreaper in 1953 and fully restored and extended by FH Browne of Canterbury in 1993. It now boasts three manuals. However, it didn't sound as loud as I had imagined it would. I suspect that it had much more oomph to it, as the case is visible and the pipes look like they could speak into the entire building. (It's a shame, because the first two hymns were "proper stonkers" and would have benefited from a full- blast organ.) The choir were also in attendance, diminished due to a family wedding the day before, and sang a setting by Ledger and the anthem Blessed Word of God Incarnate by Robert Pearsall. The church is currently advertising for a director of music, and the choir could have been greatly aided by someone conducting them during this anthem.

Did anything distract you?

I was greatly distracted by the magnificence of the murals, stained glass and decoration. I was also mostly distracted by the volume (or lack thereof) from the organ. And I was puzzled and caught off-guard by the congregation having to join in reciting the collect for the day.

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

The service was definitely middle-of-the-road. We followed a set service (but one of the more modern wordings from Common Worship); we had a choir and organ; the communion was administered kneeling around the altar; and so on. But it wasn't beyond the reach of someone new to church.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

10 minutes.

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

7 – The vicar spoke well and eventually tied all the threads of his sermon together. I did wonder where he was going when he started with the news of the death of Michael Bond, author of the Paddington Bear series, and Paddington's emergency marmalade sandwiches.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Starting with Paddington and marmalade sandwiches, the vicar spoke about the British love of whimsy and farcical humour. He likened it to needing a "common ground" when meeting and talking with other people. This led to the concept of the book of Romans being a tough read but worth wrestling with. This segued into a discussion of Martin Luther's dreading of the psalms, where he saw God's righteousness being about judgement and punishment, whereas the letters to the Romans show Paul likening God's righteousness to opening the door to paradise. Righteousness is the hidden word – what is good, asking us to respect people, justice, sins being addressed and overcome, having a good life in a good society. Romans speaks of law, and the vicar talked about perception of law and justice – like Luther's interpretations of law being a burden and us feeling crushed and being driven to meet demands of life. This leads to Paul giving us hope, that we are the family of God and his response of love and joy. We do need to go through the bad and difficult stuff to get to joy. Both Paul and Martin Luther were converted to this joy through God.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

My heavenly moments happened when I looked round the building. And actually, although I normally fear the peace, I enjoyed the welcoming from the people of this church.

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

I was annoyed by the vicar leaving his microphone on during every single sung section. I thought it seemed wasteful having a choir to lead the singing when a priest was singing over them. Also, I'm now increasingly perplexed by varying styles of recessionals. This time, the vicar and curate dashed off to the back of the church after the dismissal, and then the crucifer fetched the cross and led the choir round the side to the vestry. The most important part of any procession is the cross. Everyone should follow the cross, usually in the order acolytes, choir, servers, then clergy.

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

I spent a bit of time during the voluntary standing at the front to find out why the volume wasn't carrying (my conclusion was "organist's choice"). After that, a Sunday school leader came to chat about Child and how well they had done. A choir member came and chatted about the choir, and invited us to have a coffee. And during our time drinking coffee, a few different people engaged us in conversation: the vicar's wife, who was lovely and told us about various refurbishment plans, including a new refreshment area; a churchwarden, who told us about the murals and windows; and a few other people who were friendly.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

The usual tea and coffee, served in polystyrene cups. I don't like polystyrene cups – they make my teeth itch. It tasted OK. There were also lots of biscuits that kept getting magically topped up. One hopes they'll get some proper cups when they create the new refreshment area.

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

7 – When they appoint their new director of music, I'm sure it will all be lovely. They are definitely doing all the right things toward making the church a community.

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

Sort of. Two of the hymns made me want to leave, but that's personal preference!

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

Those amazing murals, and the friendly feeling.

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