St Hilda’s, Crofton Park, London, England


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Hilda’s, Crofton Park
Location: London, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 2 June 2024, 10:10am

The building

Opened in 1908, St Hilda’s was created as a new parish church to serve a new outer suburb. The church is built of yellow brick with stone ornamentation to the designs of F Greenaway and J Newberry. They are little known – but evidently rather good – architects, who worked in a Gothic style influenced by the British Arts and Crafts movement. There is a sturdy bell tower with high shoulders. Apparently this is unfinished and would have had a timber spire on top if the money hadn’t run out. Architecturally, St Hildas makes quite an impact in its low-rise residential setting. The church interior was once yellow brick and stone to match the outside, sadly painted beige and white in recent decades. Inside, the high altar with its tall tapestry dossal has no competition as focus of our attention, though there is a lady chapel in the north aisle and the south aisle was full of the paraphernalia of parish life, plus a a temporary exhibition of artwork.

The church

To judge from their website, St Hilda’s has quite a few connections to its parish community. There are several parish-based organisations and the church hall adjacent seems to be well used by church groups and others. The church website includes videos exploring ‘growing unhappiness’ in our contemporary culture, and there is surely a key role for the church here. But this viewer found the selection a little too aimed towards the doomscrollers for comfort. Two referred to ‘fundamental breakdown’ as though this was widely accepted, and failed to provide answers in terms of faith, or otherwise. Another had the eye-catching title, ‘We have traded theophany for dopamine’, presented by young US Franciscans. The discussion was topical, but undermined for me by the laddish, self-regarding presentation of the dudes. St Hilda’s takes part in the local community festival, for which they had mounted the exhibition of portraits in the south aisle, and the parish coach outing to the south coast seaside resort of Hastings was imminent and was to be the last parish gathering with the present vicar, who is due to retire after 29 years in post.

The neighborhood

In 1892, Crofton Park acquired its own railway station, enabling residents to commute to central London for work and entertainment, as doubtless many still do. The area has very much the flavour of the 1920s and 30s, when the rural fields not already developed for commuter housing were filled in. Today the local high street still has shops, but as we use larger supermarkets these days, the retail is mostly take-out food outlets or highly niche operations selling things such as car hubcaps or artisanal cheeses. St Hilda’s is a short way from the shops, surrounded by low-rise housing. Crofton Park is a fairly quiet suburb, and still leafy and green on account of the many gardens with mature trees.

The cast

The vicar celebrated and preached, a member of the congregation read the first lesson, and a group of four led the singing.

What was the name of the service?

Solemn Eucharist and Junior Church.

How full was the building?

45 plus an altar party of 6. We were spread around the church, which though lofty isn’t large, which made it feel populated. Four children and a junior church supervisor left at the start and returned again after communion.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

The church website said 10.10 am on one page and 10.15 am on another. So I was there on the hour, just in case. The welcomer was already on duty for a warm hello to this early bird. In the church, a clergyman who turned out to be the vicar spotted me as a newcomer, and after a warm welcome asked if I could find my way around the service sheets. With his help, I did. So top marks for stranger welcome.

Was your pew comfortable?

I would always prefer a pew to grab hold of – more solid and inclusive – but my elderly but non-rickety chair did the job well enough.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

As I was a good 15 minutes early, I took in the scene of quiet chatter, altar party busying and music group rehearsing as children skipped about. Bells pealed in the tower – this was a recording, and not bellringers, and was clearly audible inside. There was an unannounced hymn at about 10.10am, though it wasn’t clear whether we were to listen to it or sing it. We rose to our feet at 10.15am when the altar party emerged in procession. So the website was right. Eucharist here has a soft launch.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

‘In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.’

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The New English Hymnal, a service sheet for the day, and a mass booklet.

What musical instruments were played?

An organ in the aisle. Another organ in the sanctuary seems to be in situ, but I think made no sound.

Did anything distract you?

The clergyman confided in me that the advertised Corpus Christi procession was on hold as they had not enough time to prepare. At one point I wondered where they would have processed. Maybe clearing a passageway around the church was the preparation that was curtailed... but the distraction was not a long one.

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

A modern catholic mass. Incense, plus six servers, and hymns more enthusiastically sung by some than others. A childrens’ church was in the room next door.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

25 minutes, with a short reprise of key points at the notices.

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

6 — The vicar seemingly spoke without notes in an accessible and direct way, and his themes were directly relevant to the solemnity of Corpus Christi. But there was enough meat for three sermons, or perhaps even a Lent course. As one sermon, it was carrying too much freight.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

His wide ranging discussion was around the meaning of the eucharist, and the senses in which ‘real presence’ could be – and has been – understood and misunderstood. He sketched the political misrepresentations around the issue from the Catholics denigrating reformed churches, and protestants marginalising and mocking Catholic practice, at the time of the Reformation and since. These are still a live issues for many. He placed himself as a Catholic Anglican, not because this was a worldly compromise of convenience, but because he sought to recover the beliefs surrounding the eucharist in the early church, up to the Great Schism of 1054. Unfortunately he then went into a major disquisition about the 'black rubric' – those sentences in the English Prayer Book that justify kneeling at communion in terms of 'humble and grateful acknowledgement' which was inserted at the behest of protestant reformers who wanted to make it clear there was no 'idolatrous' adoration of the host in the Church of England. The debates around this rubric and its inclusion, then exclusion, then inclusion again, are fascinating and touch on the deepest matters of the liturgy. But this wasn’t a university lecture!

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The children returned from their gathering next door after communion and showed us the artwork they had made – drawings of the congregation. One was a collection of colourful blobs and I posited myself as one of the bright blue blobs in the image. Another child had drawn a fuzzy orange chrysalis-like form with a strong orange ring around it. I would like to have asked them about these insights, for children can sometimes see things so clearly.

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

Not hellish, but I didn’t know the Taizé setting used for the mass, so I wobbled rather.

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

No chance. A lady promptly came across, having recognised me as a visitor, chatted and then invited me to coffee or tea, an invitation I accepted. Again, full marks for the welcome.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Tea and coffee in real cups served in an annexe that I think leads to the church hall, though many wandered back into the west end of the church to chat and drink their beverages. It was a friendly congregation, and I would guess that two-thirds stayed and chatted.

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

7 — If I find myself in that part of town, I shall.

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


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

The meaty sermon (even though far too large a portion), and the orange chrysalis drawing. Sorry, that’s two things – but I am torn.

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