What is now called "the Old Church" in the parish of Chingford has Norman origins, but by the 1840s it was in such a bad state that a new church was put up on Chingford Green instead. The Norman font was moved from the abandoned church, as were the pulpit and parish chest containing the registers. By the turn of the century it became necessary to extend the chancel and nave. The Elizabeth chapel (named in honour of the Blessed Mother's kinswoman, not the Queen and also known as the Lady chapel) was completed in 1937, featuring an east window by Christopher Webb, one of the 20th century's foremost stained glass designers (sixteen of his windows can be found in Sheffield Cathedral). The window depicts the Virgin Mary, St Elizabeth, and St John the Baptist, along with Webb's trademark signature, a tiny St Christopher in the lower right corner. The east window in the main chancel was designed by Clayton and Bell, whose high quality windows are found throughout the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, as well as in Truro and Peterborough Cathedrals. The window was installed in 1913 and depicts Christ in majesty with the archangels. The choir stalls are also from 1913, and the reredos from 1923. Extensive repairs have been carried out recently to the roof and spire.
The parish is served by two churches, All Saints (the Old Church, which stood unused until 1930, when it was restored), and St Peter & St Paul. They aim to be fully inclusive, and have a huge and long, witty though serious, banner statement on their home page welcoming "the filthy rich, comfortable, or dirt poor ... more Christian than the Archbishop of Canterbury or ... only here because grandma is in town." This welcoming statement is also displayed on big red laminated posters on every notice board and available surface outside the church. They have various groups for outreach and mission, among them befrienders of the bereaved; their own in-house servers' guild called the Society of Simon and Veronica; and all the usual children's and church groups. One of the chapels has been turned into a children's area with colourful "cubist" plush carpet tiles on the floor. Their main outreach happens in a musical context. They are well-known for their musical excellence, with multiple choirs (boys, men, women) who have produced several CDs. There are also regular lunchtime organ recitals. The week I attended they were advertising a Quiet Day and were hosting a TV crew recording footage with the choir.
Chingford, ten miles northeast of central London, changed from a rural village into a major London suburb a process speeded up by the coming of the railway in 1873. It has several historic churches in very close proximity representing all the major denominations. The Old Church is opposite the old cemetery, which is the last resting place of the notorious Kray gangster brothers, who grew up here. A contemporary son of Chingford is the footballer David Beckham. On Chingford Plain in Epping Forest one finds Queen Elizabeth's Hunting Lodge, originally built for King Henry VIII in 1543 as a grandstand from which to watch the hunting of deer. The building is now open to the public. Another local landmark is a granite obelisk at Pole Hill erected in 1824 under the direction of the then Astronomer Royal to mark true north on the meridian line for the telescopes of the Royal Observatory at Greenwich. When the meridian was recalibrated in 1850, the obelisk was calculated to be 19 feet (5.8 m) west of the "new" meridian.
The celebrant and preacher was the honorary assistant priest, the Revd Canon Rodney Matthews. The Revd Deacon Maxwell Hutchinson (a/k/a Professor Deacon for his radio and TV programmes on architecture, in which field he holds a diploma), proclaimed the gospel. Two acolytes, one crucifer, and the MC completed the cast.
What was the name of the service?Sung Eucharist.
How full was the building?
I was about 15 minutes early, and it was totally empty apart from the servers and clergy, who were busying themselves with various tasks. I had a very brief look around, but it did not feel right while service preparations were going on. So I took to my pew. I never noticed how the church filled, because I ended up with only two people and lots of empty pews in front of me. However, during the gospel reading all was revealed: as I turned round I faced a full back half about 70 or so.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes. I was handed the hymn book, order of service, and pew sheet by one lady, and then more personally welcomed by another lady in a cassock. We had a brief and pleasant chat; she later appeared in the cast as one of the servers. Once I was settled in my pew I was again approached by a third lady, who enquired whether I was familiar with the order of service. There was another visitor who sat two pews in front of me who was given the same attention. She was joined in her pew by a regular, which was thoughtful, particularly as there was no one in front of her.
Was your pew comfortable?
Yes. These are nice post-war pews. Even the floor was comfortable. I don't think I've ever before knelt on a church floor that was as even and comfortable as here, not even a carpeted one. There were tapestry kneelers as well, which were very thick though more on the plain side.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
I heard a small child cooing, and the usual rustling and quiet talk somewhere behind me. However, I was totally surprised when I turned round during the gospel procession to find the back half full of people. How on earth had they all slipped in so quietly?
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning, and welcome to you all here at the parish church." Apologies for an empty house and missing choir were given, together with information about the after service coffee and fair trade stall.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
New English Hymnal (words edition), an order of service booklet with bright green covers that contained a choice of eucharistic prayers, the weekly news sheet, and a separate sheet with the readings, collects and prayer requests.
What musical instruments were played?
Organ. The original instrument was a fine Norman & Beard opus built between 1907 and 1913. Until 1929 it was blown by a hydraulic motor. Additional features were added in 1932, resulting in it (quoting from their website) "generally not considered to be of special interest historically or tonally." It was overhauled in 1965, and in 1998 it was thoroughly renovated by JW Walker & Sons, who replaced obsolete and barely functioning electrical and piston work with the latest in microprocessors, memory boards and, yes, pistons. Today the instrument is regularly used for concerts and teaching by various organists.
Did anything distract you?
Something that looked like a very long cobweb wisp was visible in the chancel arch. I tried to work out which of the beams in the chancel was playing host to it.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The celebrant was attired in a green chasuble, the parish deacon in a matching dalmatic. There were four servers in short-ish cottas. I picked this church deliberately for its outstanding choral reputation, but there was no choir at all only rows upon rows of empty stalls. But the excellent choice of hymns almost made up for this. The congregational singing was a bit weak, but the voice of one of the men in the sanctuary carried well. There were bells but no smells, and the ceremonial was dignified but not theatrical or stilted.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – Father Rodney did not tower high above the ledge of the pulpit, and I could not work out whether he was using notes. The delivery was clear. He had a pleasant voice and a mischievous twinkle in his eyes. He started off with a joke, which is usually a red flag to me, particularly when it serves merely as an ice-breaker. However, it turned out to be an anecdote rather than a joke proper, and was followed by two more that were very much connected to the readings of the day.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Know what you are letting yourself in for before you commit. Discipleship comes at a cost. In today's gospel (Luke 14:25-33) Jesus tells us that we must leave our families behind (not "hate" them, as the passage is sometimes translated). A disciple must be prepared to make sacrifices, to turn away from comfort and embrace discomfort. Jesus wants us to know what we are taking on. Following him does not require silly enthusiasm, but rather informed decision, and finally, ultimate and dedicated commitment with perseverance. The benefits of such commitment will always outweigh the cost: salvation, acceptance and equality for all in Christ.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Edifying worship and a challenging sermon in an obviously intentionally fully inclusive parish without sticking the label on it. I looked and felt re-invigorated.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
That absent choir and the congregation could have been a bit more outgoing.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Unfortunately I had to leave in order to beat the traffic for the journey home. However, when I picked up the parish magazine at the back of the church and looked at the various pamphlets and information available, none of those milling around spoke to me. When I made for the door, Father Rodney warmly waved me on my way.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was coffee on offer in the church hall, but no one invited me other than the general invitation at the beginning of the service, and I could not identify a stream of people making for a particular direction. As it was, I could not have stayed, but I would have liked to meet some of the locals.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 – I felt comfortable enough, though a bit ignored by almost everyone. However, I would almost be prepared to move to London for worship as edifying as this, even without the choir.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
I was encouraged that this is an inclusive parish that does not pussy-foot around with labels, or hide behind euphemisms.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
That I felt a bit wrapped-across-the-knuckles for having specifically come for the music rather than for the gospel.