St Alfege, Greenwich (Exterior)

St Alfege, Greenwich, London


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Mystery Worshipper: Ken T. Poste, accompanied by Pouting Thomasina
Church: St Alfege
Location: Greenwich, London
Date of visit: Sunday, 2 July 2017, 10:00am

The building

Amongst the rich architectural heritage of the immediate area, the grand work of Nicholas Hawksmoor, champion architect of English Baroque, still manages to stand out. It is every bit a match for the nearby Old Royal Naval College, designed by Hawksmoor's friend and mentor Christopher Wren. The only downside is that it is surrounded by trees, which partially hides it from view and makes getting a decent photo slightly tricky. The entrance to the church is rather well hidden also, and one has to walk around the building and down a side street before discovering the entrance off a small car park. One ascends a small, wheelchair-accessible ramp and soon finds oneself in the main body of the church building. As one might expect from a Hawksmoor, St Alfege's has a bit of wow factor, with some nicely resplendent touches – not least of which is an enormous chandelier that hangs quite low above the centre aisle. The medieval church is the location of the tomb of the famed composer of church music, Thomas Tallis. The precise whereabouts of his remains is unknown, however, as they may have been moved during construction of the building. The church was restored in the 1950s after it was partially destroyed by an incendiary bomb in 1941.

The church

The churchs dedication is perhaps not the most common. St Alfege, Archbishop of Canterbury in the early 11th century, met a fateful end at the hands of some greedy Danes. The church is built on the location where he was said to have been martyred, though Alfege seems not to have gained the widespread post-mortem fame that Thomas Becket later did. It is rumoured that Becket was praying to Alfege just prior to his own murder. The church had a brief moment of fame in 2015 when the national press reported that an afternoon tea had been interrupted by armed police, who burst through and into a nearby park, nearly knocking over the vicars wife as they did so. But this group of resolute Anglicans were not to be disturbed, and they carried on drinking their tea as though nothing untoward had happened at all.

The neighborhood

Greenwich Park and the surrounding area is probably the most touristy part of south-east London. On the day we visited, it was full of people with cameras slung round their necks, though the tourists seem not to have found their way inside the church. The whole area is suffused with maritime history, as epitomised by the National Maritime Museum just a stones throw from the church. The area was designated as a UNESCO world heritage site in 1997. The hill upon which the Royal Observatory sits provides the opportunity for a brief lung-busting climb followed by spectacular views across London, taking in the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf to the north.

The cast

The service was led by "Susan," who also presided over the eucharist. The reading and sermon were given by "Peter." Although no surnames were given, nor were they printed on the notice sheet, I surmise that they were probably the Revd Dr Susan Blackall, the assistant chaplain of the Old Royal Naval College, and Peter Kinnison, a lay reader. The regular vicar was away this week.

What was the name of the service?

Sung Eucharist

How full was the building?

It felt very full, as the 100 or so of us there were all downstairs, but there was an unused balcony that could have comfortably accommodated the same number again.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

As we came in, we were handed a hymn book with a couple of sheets tucked into it, though we nearly missed the person handing them out, who was hidden behind a desk. Other than that, no one came over to say hello until the giving of the peace.

Was your pew comfortable?

It wasn't bad, but it wasn't great either. We sat in fairly austere looking pews that were padded with a thick cushion. There were pew-length kneelers on each row, though they were fixed very close to the pew in front, so if anyone short were to try to use it, they'd likely end up with their chin resting on the shelf for the hymn books.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

The choir, dressed in their red robes, were just finishing their practice. People filtered in and some greeted each other another in small groups, but most people claimed their spot and waited for the service to begin.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Good morning and welcome to our holy communion."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

We sang from Hymns Ancient & Modern. The liturgy, Common Worship, Order 1, traditional language, was in a battered green booklet and the weekly notice sheet was also tucked inside. I didnt spot any Bibles other than the ceremonial one used for the gospel reading.

What musical instruments were played?

An organ, where both the instrument and the organist were hidden from view. According to the church website, the organ was originally housed in Eton College, some 30 miles to the west of its current location. It was originally built by Lewis & Co, but was rebuilt in 1970 by Harrison & Harrison before being moved to the church in 2000.

Did anything distract you?

There were a few minor distractions. One of the speakers above my head had an intermittent click to it, which sometimes deterred one from what was being said. During the liturgy, there was one person on the far side who was noticeably out of time with everyone else, so one could hear her finish about half a second after everyone else had. For those familiar with the show Dads Army, it was somewhat reminiscent of Lance Corporal Jones, who was invariably one step behind the rest of the platoon. There was a further, most disturbing, distraction during the sermon (see below).

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

St Alfege's is a church with a rich choral tradition. The 25 member choir, with white surplices over their red robes, sang beautifully, though the terminology the choirmaster used to describe the pieces was lost on this pair of nonconformists. With lots of robes, processions and liturgy, but no smells or bells, it would be best described as leaning towards the high end of middle Anglicanism. The congregation were able to join in with some of the singing, with a few hymns. The first hymn was of particular comfort to Pouting Thomasina, for whom this was the first ever Anglican service, as she was pleased to be able to sing a Charles Wesley hymn that she knew.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

13 minutes.

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

7 – Peter spoke very clearly with a rather posh accent. He didn't pause when an elderly lady collapsed (see below). This seemed a little "off" at the time, and he certainly lost the attention of most people for a while.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

He contrasted the characters of Peter and Paul. Peter knew what it was like to be up to his neck in it, as he often jumped in with both feet first. Peter and Paul show that there are different ways of being disciples. We have our own ideas about who we are, but one-seventh of our personality remains hidden.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The choral singing was wonderful. It was clear that a lot of practice and passion had gone into this, but it wasnt so professional so as to be joyless. For those not used to choral singing in church, this was a rare treat.

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

There was a horrible moment part way through the sermon when one of the parishioners sat next to us was taken ill. All of a sudden we heard a thudding sound. We looked over and saw an elderly lady slumped forward with her head leaning on the pew in front, her arms dangling downwards. Within a flash, before it had properly registered that she was ill, several people came to her aid. She was well cared for, but it was quite a distressing sight to witness. Later in the service, prayers were said for her and a notice given for someone to move their car in order to allow access to the ambulance that had been called.

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

We queued at the back of the church to hand back our hymn books before heading across the car park to the church hall for refreshments. We spoke to one parishioner, who was lovely and friendly, proving herself well capable of holding a conversation and keeping an eye on her son, who was seemingly about to bump into anyone and everyone.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Coffee was served in the church hall, which was situated on the far side of a small green. No two of the mugs it was served in were alike, making one wonder if the hodge-podge nature of the mugs was an accident of history or a theological statement about the diversity of the church. The coffee itself was quite passable and went down well.

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

6 – The worship was lovely, but the teaching was a little lacking in depth.

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

On the whole, yes.

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

The poor woman being taken ill. We wish her a speedy recovery.

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