Christ's Chapel, Dulwich Village, London


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Christ's Chapel
Location: Dulwich Village, London
Date of visit: Sunday, 27 February 2022, 6:30pm

The building

17th century chapel with wood panelling on whitewashed walls and attractive modern stained glass. There are a couple of good artworks on the wall, and an eye-catching triptych. The organ is situated in a west gallery. The chapel forms a semi-detached unit with the picture gallery next door.

The church

This is a chapel congregation linked to the larger worshipping community at St Barnabas. The chapel is part of the same foundation as Dulwich College.

The neighborhood

Dulwich Village itself is extraordinarily well-heeled, and is home to a number of aging rock stars, and to a quite astonishing number of public schools.

The cast

The vicar led and preached, and someone from the choir did the readings.

What was the name of the service?

Sung Evensong.

How full was the building?

There were perhaps a dozen people in the congregation (including at least two other visitors), plus a small choir up in the gallery. The building could seat a lot more than this, but it didn't feel awkwardly empty – it's not a big barn of a place. The congregation were mostly (all?) post-retirement age and, I think, with the exception of the two other visitors, everyone was there alone. It was quite nice to see a ministry that – whatever its inherent aims – is catering successfully for a large group who are sometimes overlooked amongst family services and youth groups, etc.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

A cheery man greeted me at the door with a pile of books, and the lady in the row behind said a friendly hello at the end of the service. The congregation were not chatty, but I did feel welcome.

Was your pew comfortable?

Standard 19th century pitch-pine number. I found it quite comfortable. The only issue was that the psalter was too large to balance on the book rest sticking out the back of the pew in front, and I knocked it on to the floor quite loudly several times.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Fairly quiet, but not oppressively so. The organist played a hymn at high speed: I was not sure whether this was ‘mood music’ or practice.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

‘A very good evening to you all.’

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Book of Common Prayer; New English Hymnal; and the Parish Psalter with Chants (Nicholson). There were no pew Bibles, but the readings seemed to be from the King James Version.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ with a small accompanying choir.

Did anything distract you?

I'm fluent in Prayer Book, but it's not my first language. I sometimes get a bit flustered about when to sit and stand, and when ‘all’ means the choir, and when it really means ‘all.’ Do any worshipping communities ever follow the rubrics in exactly the same way? As the congregation was rather small and at least 25 per cent visitors, it was not possible to adopt the usual ploy of copying everyone else a micro-second later, and I was sometimes a bit unsure what I should be doing. But please see my later comments on the reaction of the congregation.

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

Restrained Prayer Book stuff. For some reason I had expected it to be Anglo-Catholic, but although most of the service was chanted, it was all surprisingly low-key and unfussy. Although in many ways the service was the height of formality, the atmosphere was surprisingly relaxed.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

8 minutes

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

8 — The sermon was where I got distracted. I hope I have not misrepresented the preacher.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

God's judgement is also our hope. God's judgement is often seen somewhat negatively, and relating chiefly to private sins, but it also applies to global injustice (such as the invasion of Ukraine). God's judgement is shown in the cross of Christ, which is also our hope. Moreover, it is our duty to walk in the way of the cross.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

When we visitors got a bit confused about standing/sitting during the psalms, I think the regular congregation joined us in being wrong so that we wouldn't feel uncomfortable. That kind of active kindly forbearance can sometimes show a warmer welcome than the most highly focus-trained welcome teams.

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

Just before the service I had been looking at the news that the Russian president was starting to talk about use of nuclear weapons. During the sermon (partly about the war in Ukraine) a jet suddenly flew very low overhead, and for a moment I actually thought the end had come. I am pleased to be able to say that no missiles were fired at the congregation, and the service continued calmly, but I did not focus so well on the second half of the sermon as I might otherwise have done. I do not think I can hold the church responsible for either the aeroplane or my reaction to it.

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

People just left at the end of the service. It was not an unfriendly atmosphere, but neither was it a chatty one. People greeted one another briefly, and I was included within this. The vicar was speaking to the other visitors as I left, so I presume it is his practice to do so, but that he is not omnipresent. I was hoping to have the opportunity to have a good look round the chapel, as I had never been inside before, and there seemed to be a few interesting ecclesiastical bits and bobs around, but hanging about afterwards did not seem to be the custom.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There were no post-service drinks. I don't think this was corona-related – it just didn't seem like that kind of service. I'm fairly sure that teas and coffees would be served after the service in the main parish church, but this service seemed to be for people who don't want that.

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

9 — Next time I'm in the mood for a traditional unfussy service, I will probably show my face here.

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

Yes, in a quiet, low-key confident sort of way.

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

The kindness of the people who joined me in being wrong.

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