Mystery Worshipper: Cool Dude
Church: St Paul's
Location: Deptford, London
Date of visit: Sunday, 20 October 2019, 10:30am
St Paul's is a Baroque church of considerable splendour outside and especially inside, constructed under the Fifty New Churches Act of 1711. They didn’t get around to building fifty – only twelve – but these were by leading architects of the day – in this case Thomas Archer, who was strongly influenced by Roman Baroque churches. Archer was himself a commissioner under the 1711 Act when he was given the job of building St Paul’s in 1712 (apparently such insider deals were thought acceptable in those days, indeed common). The church interior is notable for being a more or less square space surrounded by twelve huge Corinthian columns and with a richly decorated Baroque ceiling. The exterior boasts a tall and elaborate spire that makes up for the fact that the building is set back from the busy High Street, from which it is not that visible.
According to their listing on the ‘A Church Near You’ website: ‘This is a church where the Catholic Faith is taught and where the Sacraments of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church are administered according to the Rites and Ceremonies of the Church of England.’ It seems to have a lively parish life with plenty going on during the week as well as on Sunday.
Deptford, in the days that St Paul’s was built, was a village outside London, then principally important for a nearby Navy shipyard that built warships. Now it is an inner city area – the shipyard has long gone and much of the area comprises social housing for lower income groups. But, like most of London, there are pockets of great poverty and wealth mixed up with comfortable lifestyles. Deptford has a rich ethnic mix too – a huge range of European and other languages is heard on the streets – and it has a long-standing Afro-Caribbean community. The High Street adjacent to the gates of St Paul's churchyard is lively and boasts a range of shops, businesses and street markets stalls.
The vicar and a team of eight or ten servers (the number varied from time to time!) The priest wore a biretta and a maniple and referenced the Doc Martens boots he always wears and was wearing under his fine vestments.
What was the name of the service?The Parish Mass.
How full was the building?
When I arrived there were six of us, plus a prayer group visible and audible in the north aisle. Then a congregation appeared including quite a few children, plus the altar party – around 50 or so worshippers in all. St Paul’s had suddenly come to life!
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Stationed outside at the top of the grand flight of steps were two welcomers. One gave me the detailed service sheet and helpfully explained that the congregation joined in everything that was printed in bold type, leaving the priest to say the rest.
Was your pew comfortable?
A traditional pew, and very comfortable.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Reverent. The prayer group in the north aisle broke up a couple of minutes before the start and the organist played quietly. The service sheet stated that is the custom to keep silence in church before mass, an invocation that was mostly observed.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
'To you I call, for you shall surely heed me, O God; turn your ear to me; hear my words.' These words were declaimed by the priest from the altar at a volume that suggested a fanfare, after which he went out again in order that he might re-enter in procession during the first hymn.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The service sheet, which had everything including the full readings and parish notices. Plus the New English Hymnal. Our copies of The Complete Anglican Hymns Old & New remained unused at this service.
What musical instruments were played?
The organ in the west gallery, a celebrated instrument by William Drake built in 2004.
Did anything distract you?
Several. I mused about the children gathered at the front and wondered at what point they would retire to their own space and activities. But they stayed right through and were good as gold. One or two were a tiny bit restless by the time we got to 80 minutes of a mass that ran to 95 minutes, but there were no tantrums or outbursts. The three men and a woman who seemed to be minding the children were attentive and kept them engaged, and the priest went over to their corner from time to time to speak to them – for example, during one of the hymns and for part of the sermon – so they really were involved in the mass throughout. If these count as distractions, bring them on!
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Mass was a striking and memorable mixture of a very informal – indeed, chummy – approach to church community, with notably old-fashioned Catholic practice of the sort I last remember seeing at a Tridentine Rite by ultra conservative Roman Catholics. I wasn't quite prepared for this mix, but as the mass progressed it took its hold on me. There were lots of servers, mostly children, and the priest faced east to celebrate. He censed the altar as thoroughly as a beekeeper smoking out a hive, but his personal style was about as far as you can get from haughty and hieratic. There were extra bits of liturgy here and there: a litany of the saints after the intercessions, for example. Before we took communion, the children all lined up to receive a blessing. The notices and reading of banns (apparently nobody was getting married) were displaced by a mini-sermon, the nub of which was recommended reading for Black History Week together with an explanation of their importance to us as a church community and as Christian members of the wider community. At the end of the mass the dismissal was in Latin (the rest was all in modern English).
Exactly how long was the sermon?
The main homily was 17 minutes, a timing that would normally have me slightly restless, but not in this case. As well as a homily in the usual place, the priest added a mini-sermon after the bidding prayer and another in lieu of notices (see above).
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 — The vicar has the gift of a remarkably sonorous voice that projects at great volume in spite of the large church (I think without amplification). His sermon featured football, wrestling, boxing (with a demonstration), ‘those moments we can all remember when we have loved someone we shouldn't’ (this got a very loud laugh from one member of the congregation), and in his third sermon a reminiscence about his anti-apartheid activism.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The texts for the day included Genesis 32:22-31 – sometimes referred to as the story of Jacob and the angel. Whether it was an angel or not, wrestling took place, with the result that Jacob's hip was dislocated. His central theme was the need to live our faith journey as though in a wrestling match – with all the determination and persistence of Jacob ‘to go on going on.’
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
One of the child minders also read one of the readings and walked to the lectern with a very young baby in his arms. He bowed reverently to the altar without distressing (or dropping!) the baby, then read the lesson as the baby looked on with intent fascination.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
I don’t say this is hellish, but there were moments when the priest might have dialled it down a little. In the dismissal his voice rose to a triumphant cry of Ite, missa est at the volume of Freddie Mercury, lead singer of the rock band Queen, playing Wembley Stadium. On second thought … it was a great. Make it a plus point.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
No chance. We were invited in the service sheet to refreshments after the service. In addition, a churchwarden spotted me as a newcomer and personally invited me to join them. She showed me the way to the crypt, down a narrow spiral staircase (an accessible alternative was available).
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Freshly made in a cafetière (French press coffee maker) and served by our priest with joviality – and in my case a handshake and words of welcome. There were some lovely homemade biscuits, too, and soft drinks for the children. I chatted to several members of the congregation, who were a friendly lot.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 — It's across town for me – but when I have an excuse to travel that way I shall definitely return to this welcoming and committed parish.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
I shall remember being shown that there is no incompatibility between traditional liturgical observance and forging a contemporary inclusive community, so long as you do both with sufficient conviction. And I shall remember the inspired way the children were woven into a mass that many would deem suitable only for adults. St Paul’s struck me as a rather special place.