Mystery Worshipper: Ken T Poste
Church: St Mary Newington
Location: Kennington, London
Date of visit: Sunday, 6 March 2016, 10:00am
As you approach the church, you get the idea of a large, old building, but as you get close you realise that what appears to be the church is actually just a remnant of what was an older building that burnt down during the blitz of 1941. The modern church building, built in 1958, is just behind this. It's fairly simply decorated, with a slightly elevated altar and a few crucifixes on the walls. There's a raised pulpit (higher than the altar) off to one side but it wasn't used during this service.
They run a project for the local homeless population, giving them accommodation for the night and food. From the notices, I gathered that the majority of the work and contributions for the project come from a small group of the congregation, with something of a tone of chastisement during the notices. They also support the local food bank. During Lent, they are having a series of talks, the next one being on Bachs St Matthew Passion.
The church is just a few doors down from Kennington underground station in the London borough of Southwark. The area is a mix of the genteel with the more run-down part of the inner city. The borough has the second highest rate of homicides in London, with 124 murders recorded between 2000 and 2012. The two most notable nearby landmarks are the Oval cricket ground and Kennington Park, the latter of which was the scene of a famous rally by the political group known as the Chartists in 1848. The park was used also as a place of public speaking, where the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, and American evangelist George Whitfield both drew crowds by the tens of thousands.
The service was led by the priest-in-charge, The Revd Canon Giles Fraser. The sermon was given by Dr Catherine Shelley.
What was the name of the service?Sung Parish Mass
How full was the building?
It was commented near the end of the service that the congregation was twice what it had been at the start. When I did a head count during the sermon, I counted about 50, but Im sure some more snuck in after this. This was sufficient to make the place feel full, if not quite bursting.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
The first door I tried was locked, which was a bit embarrassing as I could see people inside and was pretty sure they could see me. When I eventually found the right door, someone said hello to me and gave me a hymn book with two leaflets tucked inside.
Was your pew comfortable?
It was tolerable but not luxurious. There was a thin stole-like covering on the pews, which easily rucked up and made the seat a little slippery. It wasnt thick enough to be called a cushion, so Im not sure what purpose it was supposed to serve. In each pew there were several kneeling cushions that were all individually knitted and looked like the product of a labour of love.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Very quiet. A few people were chatting, but most sat in silence awaiting the start of the service.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Greetings in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
We sang from an orange hymn book entitled Complete Anglican Hymns Old and New. The hymn numbers were on an old-fashioned hymn board hung on the side of the church. We also had a booklet containing the liturgy and a sheet that had the notices and the scripture readings from the Revised Common Lectionary, NRSV translation. Handling them all in turn would be easy for the worshipper with three arms, though as a two-armed visitor unused to such a proliferation of literature, I had to indulge in a fair amount of clumsy fumbling throughout the service.
What musical instruments were played?
Just an organ. There were a few off-key notes at the start, but the organist soon improved. There was a three-piece choir on a balcony above the main hall behind most of the congregation.
Did anything distract you?
There was a rather sweet young child in the row in front of me who kept turning round and fidgeting quite a lot. I couldn't help but offer him a few grins.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Smells and bells all the way. The incense made a choking cloud that stuck to the back of the throat but presented a beautiful sight mid-way through the service when illuminated by a shaft of sunlight coming in through a narrow window. The priest wore a pink chasuble and his assistant wore a pink stole (they stated they were definitely pink, not rose) as it was Laetare Sunday. The crucifer, thurifer and other acolytes were in white robes.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
6 – Dr Catherine Shelley spoke very clearly, though the message seemed to be directed only to correcting common misconceptions of tradition and wasn't linked to any of the scripture readings.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The history of Mothering Sunday and how that became Mother's Day. We were told that mothering neednt be limited to biological motherhood, but was far more about the role that one plays in anothers life. To that end, later in the service, the distribution of daffodils was not restricted to biological mothers, nor even restricted to the women of the congregation.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The belting out of Timothy Dudley-Smiths hymn "Tell Out My Soul" with an extra lung-busting emphasis at the end. Though the choir was small, they really helped the congregation, who sang pretty well.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
During the notices, the Revd Canon Giles Fraser had a momentary lapse of dignity when he managed accidentally to hit himself in the ear with the electoral roll.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
At first, nothing. I sat in my pew for a few minutes, as people had congregated at either end, preventing my escape. Eventually I made my way over to a side room, where the drinks were on a help yourself basis. The room was also playing host to a raffle, which got rather noisy. A few people spoke to me, including Canon Fraser, who described the scene as pandemonium. I hope he was using it in the colloquial sense of the term and wasnt making a reference to John Miltons Paradise Lost.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Worthy of damnation! I was served a cup of hot water in a polystyrene cup and then told I had to put the coffee in. There was a near-empty jar of a well-known instant brand with a single small spoon in it, so by squeezing my hand deep into the jar I ended up with the dust of the coffee granules on my knuckles. Then there was no other spoon to stir it with, so I drank a darkish water for three-quarters of the cup, with overly-strong, semi-dissolved coffee at the bottom. There was, however, some nice chocolate cake on offer.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 – Anglo-Catholicism isnt usually my thing, but they managed to have ceremony without being too aloof. Rather nice, really.
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 variety of different ways (including the incense and coffee) in which a church can leave one with a dry feeling in the back of the throat.