St Michael & All Angels, Croydon (Exterior)

St Michael and All Angels with St James, Croydon, London.


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Michael and All Angels with St James, Croydon, London.
Date of visit: Sunday, 17 December 2017, 6:00pm

The building

It is a large brick building, built in the mid-to-late 19th century, to a design by the Gothic Revivalist architect John Loughborough Pearson. The aisles are dotted with statues and icons; in front of each was a stand for votive candles. The inside of the church looked quite spectacular for the carol service. The place was festooned with candles, though in such a large space there remained a lingering gloom, especially when one looked up at the cross that was suspended above the border between the nave and the apsidal chancel.

The church

They underwent some turmoil in 2012, when their priest converted to Roman Catholicism, becoming the priest of St Marys, barely 500 yards away, taking more than half of the congregation with him at the time. Though the pastoral assistant identifies himself as evangelical, the church is very much conservative Anglo-Catholic in nature. Their information leaflet states: We believe that, when the English Church split from the Roman Catholic Church in the 1500s, the only real change was that we were no longer under the administrative authority of the See of Rome; all else continued as before. The church is a member of the parachurch organisation called The Society, whose main distinguishing feature is the rejection of women in church leadership. As a result of this, they fall under the episcopal oversight of the Bishop of Fulham. The church holds masses every day, with three on a Sunday. Music plays an important part in the life of the church, which regularly hosts concerts and organ recitals.

The neighborhood

The town of Croydon sits within the London borough of the same name. Formerly it was part of the county of Surrey and the Anglo-Saxon name may imply it was the centre of saffron growing, as Croydon is derived from the terms "crocus" and "valley," though other etymologies have been suggested. In recent years, the town has become associated with a series of grisly killings of peoples pet cats; the Croydon Cat Killer has yet to be caught. The local shopping centre, which have seen better days, was recently earmarked for redevelopment to make way for a new 1.4bn centre.

The cast

The service was led by the vicar, the Revd Tim Pike, CMP (Company of Mission Priests), who wore a purple and gold cope over a black cassock. He was assisted by a few acolytes, though they were dressed in the same black cassocks and white surplices as the choir, so it was difficult to tell them apart. The choir was conducted by the director of music, Andrew Scott. We were introduced to the special guest for the evening: Her Worshipful, The Mayor of Croydon, Councillor Toni Letts.

What was the name of the service?

Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols

How full was the building?

There was plenty of spare room to be had. In a church that could quite comfortably fit a few hundred, there were about 40 or so in the congregation, with about another 30 or so in the chancel as part of the choir or the church leadership team.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

No. There were a few people milling around at the back, but there was no formal welcome. I took my seat and a few minutes later a gentleman who said he wasnt on duty took it upon himself to distribute candles to those that didnt have them.

Was your pew comfortable?

It was a fairly standard wooden pew, which wasnt overly comfortable. There were some firm looking kneelers and there was plenty of space between the pews, so one was never short of leg room.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

It was very quiet and a little bit cold. Most people kept their outdoor coats on for the duration of the service. Hardly anyone spoke to anyone else, as we sat in silence, admiring the presentation of the church.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Please stand for the arrival of the mayor of Croydon."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Having not been greeted when I came in, I had a look at the back of the church for a notice sheet. There was a plethora of literature available, including a brief history of the church and minutes of the latest governance meeting. But I couldnt see anything particular to the service. As the choir processed in, it quickly became apparent that there was a notice sheet, so after I had gone past the point of "Once In Royal Davids City" where I was confident of the lyrics, I made a hasty dash down a side aisle to the back of the church. There, someone handed me a booklet.

What musical instruments were played?

A "Father" Willis organ, which accompanied a sizeable choir.

Did anything distract you?

Candlelit services come with their own distractions and hazards. I spent much of the service trying, and failing, not to get hot wax dripping onto my hand. The paper shield offered little protection. However, others fared worse, when I witnessed a conflagration when the paper caught alight and someone went running down the aisle with a ball of flame in their hand. Afterwards, I was told there had been a second such incident.

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

It was a very traditional carol service. The choir came in from the narthex behind a processional cross, singing "Once in Royal in Davids City." They gathered at the back of the church. The service proceeded smoothly from reading to carol and back again. The choir sang the more obscure carols, such as "Jesus Christ, the Apple Tree" and "A Maiden Most Gentle," while the congregation joined with more well known carols such as "God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen" and "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing." The service concluded with a rousing rendition of "O Come, All Ye Faithful" and an organ voluntary of "March on a Theme of Handel in F" by Alexandre Guilmant.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

No sermon.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

I loved the choirs rendition of John Taveners "The Lamb." Its a wonderful piece of music, and in the dark candlelit atmosphere the setting seemed just about perfect.

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

Lets see. A hand covered in hot wax? Yep, thats fairly unpleasant.

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

We were all invited to the church hall. I was soon met by Father Tim, who introduced me to the churchs curate, the Revd Philip Kennedy. A couple of other people said hello too.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Coffee? Not today. Mulled wine and mince pies were the order of the day. I was informed the mulling had been in-house and it was rather good. Warm, but not scalding; flavoursome but not too heavy on the spices.

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

6 – This was church as a performance piece. It was lovely to visit and to observe, but Im not sure about making a home here.

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

Yes, it was a very pleasant service.

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

The man running down the aisle with a small inferno in his hand.

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