St Mary Magdalene, East Ham, London

St Mary Magdalene, East Ham, London


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Mystery Worshipper: Salskov
Church: St Mary Magdalene
Location: East Ham, London
Date of visit: Sunday, 15 August 2010, 10:00am

The building

The present Norman church was built around 1130, and the tower in the 13th century, though much of it dates from the 16th century. A variety of materials went into this church: Caen stone from Normandy, flints and chalk from Purley, Kentish rag, as well as local pudding stone, can still be seen in the walls. The west door is Victorian. The comprehensive virtual tour on the website doesn't really give a true impression of the charm of the church interior. Original wall paintings were uncovered and preserved about three years ago, of the kind sometimes to be found in Cistercian buildings. Sadly, the lovely stained glass was destroyed during World War II. There are deeply splayed Norman lancet windows as well as the larger Victorian ones. Behind the altar is a vividly coloured lancet widow of slab glass that dates from 1972. The sanctuary also holds a Jacoben monument to the Neville family, a piscina, and a Flemish Renaissance statue of the patronal saint, Mary Magdalene. Finally, there is an anchorite's cell, with a hatch through which the inhabitant could talk to visitors and take communion.

The church

East Ham is part of the London immigrant corridor. It has seen the arrival of the 19th century Jewish population, Asians, West Indians, Africans, and more recently European Economic Community members from Poland and elsewhere. St Mary Magdalene reflects this cultural variety. The level of unemployment is high, but the spirit of community is strong. This element of social cohesion, so powerful in the old East End makeup, lives on in the churches of the area, reinventing itself as the demographic changes from year to year.

The neighborhood

There was a Roman cemetery close by this ancient site. The coffins discovered there in 1864 are now in the British Museum.

The cast

The Revd Quintin Peppiatt.

What was the name of the service?

Parish Eucharist

How full was the building?

In this tiny church, which probably seats 100 max, I counted 51 in the congregation, one priest, six in the procession, and one organist. A fine mix of ages and nationalities.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

A lady standing just outside the door said hello. Another handed me the hymn book and service sheet. Revd Peppiatt came up and shook my hand and asked me where I was from (as it happens, I'm local, but am hardly ever around on Sundays).

Was your pew comfortable?

The pews are of unadorned wood, but sufficiently deep front to back to be quite comfortable. There are heating panels faced in matching wood in the back of each pew, which are probably more efficient than either the stoves or the original fireplaces!

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

There was quite a lot going on. Some people chatted, the children moved about, and the organist was rehearsing his tiny choir of four singers at the back of the church: three adults and a boy. He later played a medley of hymn tunes.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Welcome to you all and to our visitors."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The parish eucharist service booklet and Complete Anglican Hymns Old and New.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ. In the days when there was a gallery at the west end of the church, there was a barrel organ played by the then schoolmaster. After the removal of the gallery, a "positive" organ was installed. The current instrument was bought after the first World War in memory of a curate and is still in use today at the west end of the church.

Did anything distract you?

The incense. I like it, but being in the recovery stage of a cold, I found that it caught in my throat and made me cough.

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

Fully vested, domestic ceremonial, but relaxed, especially in the sermon. See below.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

15 minutes.

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

5 – The service up to that point had been visually traditional and in keeping with the historic surroundings. We suddenly leaped forward a couple of centuries, and a screen appeared for a slide show. Revd Peppiatt joked about getting the equipment to work. There was a good deal of laughter, especially when his assistant forgot to project the next slide. He involved the congregation in the sermon with questions and answers.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Depictions of the Madonna and Child, ranging from medieval to Henry Moore, can tell us much about the relationship of Mary and Jesus, and, by extension, Jesus and us.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The ambience of a lovely building, lovingly restored and with details such as the Magdalene statue and the wonderful sanctuary lamp, combined with the sense of its being home to the congregation. This was no museum, but a working church in which we could feel comfortable.

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

The incense! Also, there was a distinct time lag between organ and congregation in the hymn singing, which I found rather difficult. That and some high keys.

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

Coffee and tea were announced, and Revd Peppiatt had already invited me to join in. But I wanted to examine the rather gorgeous altar cloth, and got into conversation with one of the ladies about it. The fabric was absolutely suited to the style and period of the church.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

I did manage to get a cup of tea in the church hall – fairly traded and in proper cups and saucers. It was help yourself from the biscuit tin.

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

9 – Wonderful church, friendly people. I might want to substitute some lower keys for the hymns!

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 domestic appearance of the sanctuary. In that small space, the placing of the Jacobean monument, the piscina and the altar gave almost the impression of an old fashioned kitchen, with range, table and sink. The statue of Mary Magdalene was also memorable.

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