St John the Divine, Kennington, South London

St John the Divine, Kennington, South London


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St John the Divine
Location: Kennington, South London
Date of visit: Saturday, 3 April 2010, 8:00pm

The building

The poet Sir John Betjeman, who had impeccable taste in churches, stations and towns, called it "the most magnificent church in South London." The church is one of the finest examples of Victorian Gothic in the country, and that's just the outside. Indoors, the Kelham Rood alone (so called after its original commission for the great chapel at Kelham Hall in Nottinghamshire) is worth your fare from wherever in the world you are reading this report. See the church's website for details of this masterpiece by the World War I sculptor Charles Jagger, but if you have ever imagined yourself standing at the foot of the cross with St John and the Blessed Virgin Mary, this is where you can do it. (See the photo below.) Also, this church is the only church of which I am aware that has gargoyles featuring Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Charles. Bring binoculars – they are quite a way up the tallest spire in South London (260 feet). Designed by the Victorian architect George Edmund Street (who built the London law courts on the Strand) and completed by his son, the church was damaged in the blitz in 1941 and restored after World War II to the original drawings. The original interior by the Gothic revivalist George Frederick Bodley was sadly lost, however.

The church

The church is connected to two schools, which is quite unusual – a mixed primary and a school for older girls. It is involved in the Robes Project, which provides night shelter for the homeless in this part of South London. The congregation includes enough members of diverse African communities to celebrate (on the Sundays closest to the dates in question) the independence days of (at least) Ghana, Nigeria and Sierra Leone with fabulous lunches. After a lengthy interregnum, the new Welsh vicar has reinstated a cycle of daily eucharistic services in the inclusive Anglo-Catholic tradition – so it's an amazing mixture of bells and smells and accents under a Grade One listed roof.

The neighborhood

It's an extremely mixed community – a racially diverse, not exactly posh neighbourhood, but among the clusters of post-war blocks of council flats there are some quite nice single-family homes in the parish, with private gardens and garages. It's a multicultural inner city suburb just off the Brixton Road with a long history of poverty. There are diverse African, Caribbean and Portuguese communities in the area. There are no fancy shops or restaurants at all, but lots of small independent grocers and the ubiquitous chains of betting shops. However, the Surrey County Cricket Ground (Kennington Oval) is only a few minutes walk away, and there are a couple of London Underground stations nearby – a rare treat south of the river.

The cast

The president and preacher was the Rt Revd Peter Selby, the retired bishop of Worcester. The Revd Mark Williams, the new vicar, and the Revd David Garlick, who had held the fort throughout the recent interregnum, flanked the bishop on the platform and preceded him in procession. They were all spectacularly robed in heavily embroidered chasubles. There were also deacons and acolytes aplenty.

What was the name of the service?

The Easter Vigil, with Sacraments of Initiation and First Mass of the Resurrection

How full was the building?

Half full. I would guess well over 100 souls, counting the congregation, choir and clergy.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Two lovely ladies at the back of the church were very friendly as they handed out the service leaflet and said we could sit anywhere.

Was your pew comfortable?

Modern linked pale wooden chairs with upholstered seats – well designed and not uncomfortable during a long service.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

People greeted one another. There was a sense of anticipation, mostly around the confirmation and baptism candidates in the front rows. There were a few people quietly praying. As the time for the service to start arrived, things settled down. The choir had entered and were seated behind the altar. The congregation had mostly arrived and taken seats. And still there was a bustling going on around the vestry. The service eventually started 10 minutes late; I have no idea why.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Brothers and sisters in Christ, this is the night in which our Lord Jesus passed over from death to life."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

A printed booklet contained all the liturgy and the hymns for the service.

What musical instruments were played?


Did anything distract you?

First, the late start had me looking at my watch and wondering. Second, an undisciplined toddler nearby got right up my nose. Fortunately, due to the peripatetic nature of the service (moving outside for the Easter fire after the initial readings) it was possible to escape from said toddler, after which I was just mesmerised by the amazing Kelham Rood.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

10 minutes.

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

8 – It was perfectly appropriate; it just didn't blow my mind. It was genuinely kind and warm and welcoming to the eight people who were being confirmed or baptised this night, and it was perfectly pitched. Bishop Selby was brilliant. They will never forget him. It brought tears to my eyes, actually. There was nothing wrong with it. There was nothing else he could say.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

It was about thinking in new ways. It really was directed (and rightly so) to the eight men and women (all adults) who were being baptised and confirmed, but with a reminder to the larger congregation that we were renewing our baptismal vows this night and that we also had to keep thinking in new ways. We might think, for example, that we are more significant than others due to our qualifications, salaries, titles or other symbols of worldly achievement, or that we are part of a community and strangers are outside of it. But not so! Jesus, after all, was a refugee with no qualifications. From tonight on, we are to think of ourselves differently, as dead to worldly ways.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The obvious joy of the newly baptised and confirmed, and the love that surrounded them. That was a glimpse of heaven. And the music – it was worthy of a cathedral. Lovely choir, wonderful organ. And the lovely flowers entwined in the wrought-iron cage that surrounds the baptismal font. It was glorious.

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

The awkwardness at the late start was irritating. More awkwardness at being stuck outside in the cold for no apparent reason when the paschal candle led the procession back indoors.

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

No lostness. The grand finale was really unexpected. There was a table laden with food and drink, and we all helped ourselves in abundance. It was very friendly. But there was more. We all followed the new vicar out into the churchyard (remember, this is South London, surrounded by council estates) where he set off fireworks and we all screamed "Happy Easter" into the suburban night sky.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Decent wine in proper glasses, but store-bought food: muffins and cheese sticks, etc. Real home-made food would have been nicer, such as I expect is produced for the various national days throughout the year. But did I bring any? I did not, so I have no right to complain.

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

9 – There is not much not to like, if you like South London, which I do. Not sure why I am not spitting out a 10 there.

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

Yes, it was very moving.

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


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