It's one of the 600 Waterloo churches (of which six are in South London) – churches built with money granted by Parliament in 1818 in celebration of England's victory at the Battle of Waterloo. Designed in the neo-classical style by architect James Savage and completed in 1829, St James has a greater claim to the title Waterloo church than some, because it boasts a ring of bells cast from cannon captured in the battle. However, it comes off as a poor cousin to four of the other South London Waterloo churches in respect to its columns on the entrance porch: it has only four, while the others are graced with six. The church is, however, a major local landmark due to its tall steeple topped by a dragon wind vane that is visible from a great distance.
It's a diverse community, in which over 20 nationalities worship together. St James is an "open evangelical" church with Alpha courses, parent and toddler groups, and regular weekly Bible study. The church is part of a group ministry.
Bermondsey is on the south side of the River Thames just east of the iconic Tower Bridge. It grew up in the 18th century as a riverside industrial centre. By the mid-19th century it had become a slum of note, with most employment being connected in some way with the wharves and factories serving the busy river trade. The area was hard hit in the bomb strikes of the Second World War, and struck again with the demise of the river economy in the years after the war. Bermondsey is now enjoying a revival and regeneration, and renovated waterfront properties are attracting money to the area. It's a deeply historic part of London, but you wouldn't notice that just passing through.
The service was led by the reader, Penny Molyneux. The Revd Shola Aoko, curate, preached. This was Mrs Aoko's last Sunday at St. James. The vicar, the Revd Stewart Hartley, had to take a service at one of the local sister churches, but he returned in time to make a presentation to the curate.
What was the name of the service?Morning Service
How full was the building?
When the service started, there were only about 40 people in the building. Half an hour later, the attendance had climbed to about 60, maybe more. It was by no means full (the Waterloo churches were built to accommodate crowds), but everyone was well spread out.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes. I was greeted and handed a service sheet and a palm cross.
Was your pew comfortable?
It was just a pew, but there were enough occasions to stand and sing that it was fine.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
There was an air of busy-ness. I was quite early, actually, and got to watch the ladies setting up a display at the front. It featured a table draped with yards of cloth, around which were spread pine branches a practical solution in lieu of palm branches, I later discovered. On the table was a framed slogan that I couldn't read from my seat quite far back. Books propped this up, and also held down the end of a string on which bobbed a silver star-shaped balloon. The congregation were assembling and chatting in small groups. The organ played for a while, then it seemed to switch to some piped music just before the service.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning, everybody. I'm Penny. Welcome to our morning service. Has everyone been handed a cross?" There was then a flurry of activity while a few more crosses were distributed. Penny went on to explain that Mrs Aoko (whom she called Shola) would be preaching and that Betty would be playing the organ. It was all very first-name friendly and quite casual.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The Bermondsey Group Ministry Service Book for Morning and Evening Prayer; The Good News Bible; Songs of Fellowship.
What musical instruments were played?
Betty on the organ, plus a gentleman on an electric piano and guitar. The electric piano might have been responsible for the "piped" music just before the service. There were also three singers. As the service jumped back and forth between "songs" and "hymns", everyone got a couple of turns.
Did anything distract you?
Other than the balloon bobbing away on a string front and centre? There were several electric fires mounted quite high on the wall (Why? Heat rises. This thought distracted me a few times.) And at the end, when the banns of marriage were read out, there was evidently to be a wedding the following Saturday. Holy Saturday! That distracted my thoughts for a while.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It wasn't quite happy clappy, but sometimes it seemed to be trying to be. A few people clapped a bit. The first song was a Graham Kendrick number, during which the children did a sort of Palm Sunday procession around the decorated table at the front of the church. Later, the congregation were encouraged to follow the readings from the pew Bibles, but there was confusion at one point when the lector was clearly using a different edition and gave out the wrong page number. I never thought I would say this, but this might be a church that would benefit from an overhead projector system. Or maybe just listening to the readings?
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
3 – It was almost like a seminar. The curate, Mrs Aoko, did a lot of striding up and down the aisle, really trying to involve the congregation in the sermon, throwing out questions and keeping on asking until she got the answer she needed. She made some good points, especially when she talked about her recent visit to Nigeria and the difficulties and persecution there, but I would guess that she hadn't had time to practice the sermon; if she had done, she could have tightened it up by half.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
It was about being ready to follow Jesus, to be disciples, to go where God sends us. Jesus sent two disciples to fetch the colt on which he would ride in triumph into Jerusalem, and off they went. We should be so obedient in our own lives. But then Mrs Aoko veered off into standing up to resistance, and from there she turned to resisting the shackles of Satan. She seemed to be off course, and I'm afraid she took me with her.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The farewell to the departing curate, for which the vicar had clearly rushed back from another service. All the children went up for a photo with her at the front of church, and there was a presentation. There was clearly a lot of love there. And then the children all processed out of church with their palm leaves oops, I mean pine branches, which was quite sweet.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
I don't personally prefer Graham Kendrick, so that first song may have soured me for the rest of the service. But I really think that significant parts of the service seemed dumbed-down. For example, when the songs were actually hymns, they were invariably introduced as "traditional", as if Palm Sunday called for something a little old-fashioned. And when it came to the psalm, we were told to turn to the "first part of the Bible" and to say it "antiphonally" and then there was a detailed breakdown of how that was meant to work (which it didn't, particularly). Then when it was time for the epistle and the gospel, we were told to turn to the "back of the Bible". Do we not know what Old Testament and New Testament mean? After all, this is a church that runs a Bible study course every Sunday evening!
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
A woman came up to me in the pew, shook my hand, and kindly invited me to stay for refreshments.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Refreshments were served in an alcove at the back of the nave. Beverages were fair trade and served in real cups. There were also biscuits. Unexceptional but absolutely fine.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
2 – I am afraid I am not being fair, as there was a lot going on with the curate's farewell and Palm Sunday, but it was just not cohesive. It felt over-complicated. The church itself is big, light, bright, airy, clean and uncluttered, but the service managed to make the place look untidy, from the dodgy balloon to the mixture of music styles to the over-long sermon. There was no thread running through it.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Let's just say it didn't put me off.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
Pine branches cleverly standing in for palm fronds. Why not?