St Barnabas, Dulwich (Exterior)

St Barnabas, Dulwich, London


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Barnabas
Location: Dulwich, London
Date of visit: Sunday, 26 January 2014, 10:00am

The building

Their Victorian building burned down in 1992, and the present modern structure was dedicated in 1996. It has a tall glass spire that stands out amongst the houses and schools nearby. Inside, the combination of brick and wood is tastefully done. The rows of wooden beams in the ceiling make the main auditorium look like the inside of an upside down boat.

The church

At present they are without a vicar, after their previous incumbent moved to Guildford Cathedral. The pride of the church is its choir, who were all dressed in very stunning bright blue robes (with the exception of one chap who forgot his at the start and was wearing a rugby shirt until he nipped out to get changed). Last summer they went on a tour of Germany.

The neighborhood

Dulwich village is a fairly well-to-do part of south London. The church is located within a stone's throw of a couple of schools, in amongst a lot of houses. Just down the road we have the heart of the village, with a few small independent shops and the site of where the old stocks used to be. Nearby is Dulwich Picture Gallery, one of the oldest art galleries in England, which houses a number of Old Masters and is well worth a visit if you're in the area.

The cast

The service was led by the curate, the Revd Dr Catriona Laing. The sermon was given by the honorary curate and chaplain of the neighbouring Alleyn's School, the Revd Anthony Buckley.

What was the name of the service?

Parish Communion

How full was the building?

Almost full. The preacher estimated 300 people, though at my count, I thought it was closer to about 230.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Not really. Someone was at the front of the church giving out books, but they were deep in conversation as I came in. So I simply picked up the books and leaflets and walked in. The chap who was seated behind me tapped me on the shoulder and asked if I was new.

Was your pew comfortable?

No. The seats were slightly curved but highly polished, so one either slipped off the front or to the back, where the back rest rather dug into one's spine. The pews were also very close together, giving little leg room, even for a shorter than average person like me.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

It was fairly quiet to begin with. Ten minutes before the service began, there were only about 30 or so people present. The choir came in, outnumbering the congregation, and sang for a bit, only to walk out of the back door and come in through the front door a few minutes later.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Good morning. Sorry about that." (The apology was because the microphone wasn't working to begin with.)

What books did the congregation use during the service?

We had a blue hymn book called Common Worship and a little booklet that contained a script for the whole service, including the readings.

What musical instruments were played?

There was just a very large pipe organ, an opus of Kenneth Tickell and Company of Northampton. But it wasn't played for everything – sometimes the choir sang a cappella.

Did anything distract you?

The heating wasn't working, so quite a few people mentioned the cold, though the number in the auditorium helped to counter that a little.

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

It was very conservative. There was lots of processing around, with the curate randomly bobbing her head from time to time around the paraphernalia on the table. The whole service was scripted liturgy and the songs were quite staid, sung eloquently by the choir, but with little enthusiasm from the congregation.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

13 minutes.

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

7 – It was very competent sermon, spoken clearly, with serious points peppered with a little light humour, though it wasn't particularly deep or theologically sophisticated.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Based largely on Matthew 4:12-23 (Jesus calls his first disciples), it was about being "fisher people" and the attributes we need in our witness, largely those of patience and of not letting our own shadow fall across the water.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The a cappella singing from the choir was excellent.

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

The PA system wasn't working well to start off, with one awful piece of feedback near the start of the service, which caused most of the congregation, myself included, to wince in pain.

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

A couple of people came up to chat to me briefly. I think one person mistook me for someone they knew. A few others asked me how long I had been coming to St Barnabas.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

It was very nice, served in a decent mug, not too strong or too weak. Though I must admit I was a little disappointed by the lack of biscuits.

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

3 – High church Anglicanism isn't really my thing. I was willing to give it a try, but I neither saw nor felt anything to change my mind here.

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

It made me glad that there was a service for people who like that kind of thing. But for me, there was nothing joyful about it; instead, we had all the formalism of religiosity, which is not how I choose to express my faith.

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

The dazzling blue uniforms of the choir.

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