A large (seating for 500 plus) Victorian High Church revival set on what was once a real village green. Its guide carries an anonymous claim for ‘the most uncomfortable pews in the whole of Christendom’. Outside, the church’s tall spire and knapped flint make for an older and more harmonious look than multiple rebuilds would suggest. Inside, dark wood pews and balconies are offset by a high and bright nave, with colourful wood vaulting in the chancel.
St Mary’s is widely reported to be one of the best-financed parishes in Southwark Diocese. It has been the mother church to most of the surrounding district churches, of which there are several, as they established themselves and grew.
The church benefits hugely from proximity to Wimbledon’s tennis landmark. The coffers are annually swelled by fees from car parking offered in the ample grounds. On my walk back after visiting, I found a delightful footpath which had, by the work of one resident lady, been turned into a linear garden. A little hidden gem to compare to the far more travelled-by Wimbledon Common.
The rector led the service, with the associate vicar acting as deacon and preaching.
What was the name of the service?Sung Eucharist, Sunday School and Creche.
How full was the building?
About a third full... 180 or so people, but there’s a lot of space.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
I was good-morning welcomed first by a busy, passing churchwarden, who directed me to sidespeople preparing and handing out the books and papers. They were somewhat preoccupied too; it seemed as if I had arrived before my (or their) time. The church did look rather empty, and the last-minute rush was in preparation. Hanging around looking even more lost, I managed to get welcomed anew by a smiling and friendly woman who directly me to any pew I fancied.
Was your pew comfortable?
I couldn't get into it! Or at least, not immediately. Having gone to the front, I felt rather exposed as I hopefully rattled the door to a Georgian box pew. Once I’d worked out which way it opened (outwards), the catch on the inside put paid to any hope of an elegant ingress. However, once in and seated, the long cushion provided was adequate protection from ‘the most uncomfortable pews in the whole of Christendom’.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
It was soothing. Quiet and prayerful, apparently in an almost empty space. Only when the service started did I realise how many people had filtered in behind.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
‘Good morning, and a very warm welcome to St Mary’s’ – said twice, because the rector’s radio mic wasn’t switched on the first time.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Only the one book: Hymns Old and New in a nice large print version. But there was a lot of paper: a sheet with the readings, a booklet for liturgy, a prayer card, and a newsletter into the bargain.
What musical instruments were played?
Organ, with an electronic piano at the communion.
Did anything distract you?
The pew shelf didn’t fully support any of the papers and hymnbook, so I was constantly picking up bits of fallen liturgy as the service progressed. I got to know the lady in front of me quite well through mutual apology (middle-class Anglican style) as at each change of position she sent another sheet to the floor. There's enough natural upping and downing in the communion service without need for extra grovelling. Also, the stertorous mouth-breathing from the gentleman behind raised increasing concern that he might keel over at some point; this would naturally disarrange my papers yet further.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Not as high or stiff as I'd expected, given the Anglo-Catholic surroundings. A robed choir of a dozen (cassocks) led the congregation in confident and enjoyable singing of clearly well known and liked hymns. Canticles and responses too were sung by everyone. A disciplined, well-organised facade was enjoyably fractured during and after communion, with the enthusiastic return of Sunday School children and (for some reason) a repeat of the blessing from the rector.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
5 — Very carefully enunciated, measured and read, with occasional lingering over seemingly random words. While excellently clear, it was a bit like listening to a pan-EU business presentation, without the slides that would attend it. Perhaps it was also the repeated use of the word 'corporate'.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
I suspect the sermon was undermined by circumstances, and I feel sympathy for the preacher. The three Bible readings and the psalm had been set for the parish’s patronal festival, and provided rich material for a sermon on St Mary the Virgin. But then Queen Elizabeth’s untimely death forced a rethink, a postponement of the festival, and some incongruous insertions to the sermon text. We should seek to follow the example of Mary, the simple village girl whose faith and humble submission to divine will brought her to bear the Son of God. Through humility, acceptance and faith, we also may be accepted as ‘good and faithful servants’. Into this simple, beige but viable message the preacher had to add extraneous passages preferring Her late Majesty’s life as illustrative of Mary's qualities, but admittedly based upon his and received opinion. The certainties of the message were thus undermined and the flow of the sermon disrupted. Tacking on a plug for the parish’s mission action plan was probably an insertion too far.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The peace. The first time in two Covid-constrained years when I've shared ‘peace be with you’ with a handshake between multiple strangers. Even in the minimalist confines of English middle-class Anglicanism, I found it extraordinarily moving. And the spontaneous generosity of two welcomes, and two blessings.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
If ever there was a metaphor for being excluded from paradise in the midst of the faithful, I found it in my struggle to get into that pew.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
About 30 seconds elapsed before I was swept up by the lady who had earlier directed me to my pewmiliation, escorted to the brand new hall for coffee, and introduced to other communicants. St Mary’s Wimbledon parishioners aren’t lacking in the social skills, and we didn't even talk tennis.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Very good, real coffee, served hot and in quantity with chocolate biscuits. A fair trade stall was in good use on the other side of the hall. A saucer for voluntary donations to tea and coffee was already fairly full of coin.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 — This visit was clearly at a very abnormal and disruptive time for the church and its clergy. It would be instructive and probably delightful to worship here in a more ordinary time.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. I felt welcomed, comfortable and in a reverent, prayerful place, if a little unchallenging... but sometimes that’s enough.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The peace. It will soon become normal again, but that was like being able to sing once more.