St Martins-in-the-Veld, Johannesburg (Exterior)

St Martin's-in-the-Veld, Rosebank, Johannesburg, South Africa


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Martin's-in-the-Veld
Location: Rosebank, Johannesburg, South Africa
Date of visit: Sunday, 29 January 2017, 9:30am

The building

The hand-hewn stone walls, along with the warm wooden roof and parquet floors, create a peaceful haven. The architectural style is reminiscent of that of Sir Herbert Baker, who designed many South African buildings in a distinctive combination of rugged local material with a nod to English tradition. Above and to the right of the sanctuary there is a large red AIDS ribbon, a reminder of the HIV crisis in South Africa. The church's title of St Martin's-in-the-Veld is a play on the name of the well-known London church of St Martin-in-the-Fields, "veld" being the Afrikaans word for "field."

The church

They have many social outreach projects. A soup kitchen feeds around 150 people each Thursday. Classes are offered in basic adult education. Parishioners visit a prison and support the hospice in the deprived black area of Alexandra. A doctors' clinic each Sunday morning offers free primary healthcare. The church is also proud of its Vuleka primary school, which offers a subsidised education since 1989 to (mostly) black pupils who would otherwise struggle to get quality education. There are also house groups, a youth group, and contemplative prayer groups. Men with a Mission meet weekly 6.30-7.30am. (South Africans are early risers.)

The neighborhood

Although everybody thinks of the church as in Rosebank, the church is technically in the suburb of Dunkeld. This area is one of the oldest, wealthiest and most gracious of Johannesburg's storied northern suburbs. You see tree-lined streets, large homes with swimming pools set in lush, mature gardens behind high walls (and high-tech security systems – Johannesburg is plagued with crime). In recent years there has been a trend to move further north into newer, gated communities. Only a few hundred yards away is the sprawling Rosebank Mall.

The cast

The Rt Revd Brian Germond, retired Bishop of Johannesburg, who now serves St Martin's-in-the-Veld as a priest, was the preacher. The celebrant was the Revd Fritz Hank, priest. The reader was Ruth Barrett, and Joscelin Whitfield administered the chalice. The music group leader was not named in the pew leaflet but played a large part in the service (see below).

What was the name of the service?

In short, Family Eucharist, although their website describes it in rather more verbose terms.

How full was the building?

It was about half full.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

My companion and I went in a good 20 minutes before the service started and so we missed the meet and greet party.

Was your pew comfortable?

Nicely comfortable.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

There was a relaxed atmosphere as people went about preparing their tasks without fuss. A glassed-off cry room at the rear of the church created apartheid for crying babies.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

When did the service begin? That was the question. I thought that the music group were rehearsing, but then its leader said something that I did not catch. At first I thought it was a musical instruction, but then I realised that whatever it was actually marked the start of the service.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Common Praise (Canterbury Press) and An Anglican Prayer Book 1989: Church of the Province of Southern Africa were in the pew holders, but the words of the hymns were projected.

What musical instruments were played?

Keyboard plus five singers. The organ remained silent.

Did anything distract you?

I noticed that some of the older people looked stoic during the more charismatic elements of the service.

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

Their website describes it as "a combination of contemporary worship and the richness of the Anglican liturgy," but I'd call it an uneasy amalgam of the traditional and the charismatic. We had two long chorus-type songs, the Prayer Book collect for purity, then another chorus. Then the music group leader prayed into the mic: "Our God is an awesome God" several times, leading in turn into an act of penitence.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

15 minutes.

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

8 – Bishop Germond has a vigorous preaching style and made good eye contact with the congregation. He kept my attention throughout. The gospel text was the Sermon on the Mount, and he gave me several new insights into a text I thought I knew well.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The Sermon on the Mount follows immediately from the call of the disciples. Call demands a response. The gospel tells us that crowds were there, and Jesus is encouraging the disciples to help others to experience the Kingdom with its law of love, of which he is the law-giver – rather like a new Sinai. The familiar phrase "Blessed are those who..." could be translated "O the joy of those who..." That is to say, it refers to the deep inner peace of being in right relationship with God. The challenge, though, is to commit, to follow this call to the Kingdom.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

I last attended this church in the early 1970s in the worst years of apartheid. Although the church was never segregated, in those days it had a Sunday afternoon service for the black servants. Now, looking around me, I saw black, white, Asian people, all at ease with one another, and a congregation using its good fortune to help others.

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

At one point we had 20 minutes of choruses. The mixture of charismatic and liturgical left me uneasy, not knowing where I was and wondering what would come next.

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

The clergy lined up outside and had a cheery word for everyone. Around the corner with the refreshments I found instant conversation with friendly people.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Generous amounts of tea, coffee, even some sandwiches (a discreet reminder that while many in the congregation are wealthy, some are struggling).

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

6 – This church has lots to commend it, but as I totter into old age I like a more predictable liturgy. The 7.30am would provide this, of course, but isn't that rather early?

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 happy mixture of races.

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