St Margaret’s, Barking Abbey, Barking, London


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Margaret’s, Barking Abbey
Location: Barking, London
Date of visit: Sunday, 28 May 2023, 11:00am

The building

This is a remnant of the once great royal Abbey of Barking, a monastery for women founded in AD 664. The church occupies one corner of the site of the abbey church. The present building is probably constructed from stones recycled from the abbey church, which was sold off in 1539 at the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII for its building materials. The present church would seemingly have fitted inside the transept of its illustrious, cathedral-sized predecessor. In 1173, the abbey was re-endowed in penance for the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket by royal henchmen, and Thomas’s sister was made abbess. St Margaret’s church dates back to 1215, with a nave and bell tower from the 14th and 15th centuries. Visitors to the church pass under the chunky gateway of the 15th century Curfew Tower, which was once an entryway into the Abbey enclosure.

The church

More properly called the Parish Church of St Margaret of Antioch, Virgin and Martyr, today’s church is a thriving worshipping community in an area of high social stress. Apart from two Sunday services, the church also offers Morning Prayer on Monday and Wednesday, and Night Prayer (Compline) online on Tuesday. There is also a weekday communion on Thursday in the Lady Chapel. This seems to be a lively congregation, and during the service, a notice was read about a new book group forming among members.

The neighborhood

Barking, once a market town a few miles outside the capital, grew up around its prosperous abbey. It is today an outer suburb of East London, which has expanded to engulf it. Government statistics show Barking is one of the most economically and socially deprived communities of the metropolis, and it is notably ethnically diverse. The abbey ward population is 89% non-white British, and includes a high number of asylum seekers from far afield. The site of the abbey is a large green open space, protected from development by archaeological remains surviving below the grass, but surrounded by unlovable cookie-cutter blocks of apartments, new or under construction. An open space here is valuable, although parts of it lack trees and seats and could be more welcoming. The green was the location of four horrible murders a decade ago, and the bungled police investigation which followed was later dramatized for television. Within one corner of this space lies St Margaret’s, sequestered in its historic churchyard, where gravestones, mature trees and a large resident population of squirrels give the church an almost rural atmosphere.

The cast

The vicar and an altar party of five, some in dapper blue robes. I think they are the remnant of the church choir, which was forced to disband during the Covid pandemic.

What was the name of the service?

Holy Communion.

How full was the building?

With five minutes to go there were 30, but lots of people came in from the church hall, and there were quite a few latecomers, amounting to about 150. This made the church cheerfully full. We were notably ethnically diverse, with about half the congregation of African or Caribbean origin, and a number of other minorities were represented, including my own pale tribe. There was a good spread of ages, family groups, couples and singles.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Most people enter the church via the abbey’s Curfew Tower, an obvious entrance, but after that the way into church isn’t clear. There is a sign for visitors, but I missed it and walked all around the church until realising everyone goes in via the church hall. The older doors of the church are permanently closed off. In the hall I was warmly welcomed, given the paperwork, and shown the door to the worship space, which is still not obvious. I noticed there were toilets, clearly labelled, in the hall.

Was your pew comfortable?

A nice Victorian pew with poppy-heads on each end – just as I like ‘em. Comfortable and stable. There were kneelers, though nobody knelt.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

A quiet and prayerful atmosphere, the chatters having stayed in the church hall until the start of the service. The prayerful atmosphere and spring sunshine streaming through stained glass set the scene well.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

‘This is the last day of Easter, so the last time this year we will use these words.’ The vicar then went into the Easter acclamation, projected at top volume.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Hymns Old & New, a weekly pew sheet with the readings in full, and an order of service booklet with all the other words. We didn’t need the hymn book as the words were projected onto a large and clunky screen across the chancel arch. I tried both the screen and the hymnbook, since both were on offer, and marginally preferred the hymnbook.

What musical instruments were played?

A pipe organ well played, though the hymns taken more slowly than I like. It was the last day at St Margaret’s for the organist, who was also the church’s director of music. He was moving to Yorkshire to be ordained deacon.

Did anything distract you?

A young child, who apparently didn’t accept the offer to go to the Dove Club for children, was protesting noisily, but eventually calmed down, or decided to attend the Dove Club after all, I couldn’t be sure which. Secondly, a notice near me that read, ‘Photography and Film Free Area – if you sit in this area’, which naturally made me wonder why I might be photographed. Presumably in an online worship broadcast. Did this perhaps include reaction shots during the sermon? As I wasn’t in this area, I put on my best listening carefully face, just in case.

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

The usual labels for worship styles don’t quite fit here. The vicar’s manner was markedly chatty and informal, but he stuck to Common Worship with modern language and took no liberties with it. Our service sheets observed the church season. The vicar wore a surplice and stole, no vestments. People crossed themselves at the blessing but not much otherwise. The ugly screen with the hymn words suggested to me charismatic hand-waving worship (you can’t read words from a hymn book while waving) but it wasn’t like that at all. Even on this Pentecost Sunday when the text was about speaking in tongues, we kept our hands well below our shoulders. The liturgy of the word was led from in front of the chancel screen, but for the consecration of the eucharist the vicar moved to the high altar, some distance away beyond the carved screen, but facing us and with the benefit of a brilliant sound system, so that everything was clear, intimate even, in spite of the distance and sightlines. This gave that part of the service an appropriate degree of mystery. Altogether it was traditional Church of England, but accessible, without frills.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

13 minutes.

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

7 — He was clear and accessible and easy to listen to.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The organist preached, since it was his last day at St Margaret’s, the church where he had been baptised decades previously, before moving out of the area to be ordained. He connected our perception of the Holy Spirit with music and its ability to communicate wordlessly, perhaps in a similar way to those tongues of fire in the upper room. And its ability to connect us to the community of the church and the faithful departed.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The retiring organist had requested an extra hymn for his final day, and chose ‘In Our Day of Thanksgiving’, one of my favourites. Congregational singing at St Margaret’s works well.

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

Nothing hellish at all, except for the screen with its scrolling hymn words, which for me trigger a memory of the screens in George Orwell’s novel, 1984, which I can’t remove from my consciousness.

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

Several people smiled genially and greeted me, but nobody came to speak. To be honest, I should have tried harder to follow up their greetings, but a journey home and lunch beckoned. I listened to the organ voluntary, which was a sedate variation of Abba’s ‘Thank You for the Music’, a good swansong for an organist.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Coffee and cake and soft drinks were on offer, and about a third of the congregation appeared to stay in the church hall, through which we had all entered, and which was the way out into the bright Barking sunshine. I am off the bean so didn’t get a coffee, but there was a welcoming and friendly atmosphere.

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

7 — In spite of good rail connections, Barking is too far from home for me, otherwise I would.

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


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

The full church and ‘Thank You for the Music’.

Image: diamond geezer under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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