St Mary's, Little Ilford, England

St Mary's, Little Ilford, England


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Mystery Worshipper: Salskov
Church: St Mary's
Location: Little Ilford, England
Date of visit: Thursday, 1 April 2010, 8:00pm

The building

This is an ancient site. Archeological excavation has uncovered Romano-British pottery, as well as evidence of a Saxon Norman church. The doors and windows of St Mary's are Norman round headed, and the walls a mixture of ragstone rubble, flint, chalk, and re-used Roman tile, owing to the lack of natural stone in the area. The nave could well be older than the estimated late 12th century. It has seating for eight rows of eight chairs, with a central aisle. In addition, there is the chancel, a porch, and a square chapel used as a vestry. Also a small wooden bell tower. There are many old features, including memorial tablets, monuments, brasses, hatchments (painted coats of arms), and stained glass of which the earliest examples date back to the 15th century.

The church

This is a sister church to St Michael and All Angels. It is linked to all the latter's parish activities, but could be described as meditative by comparison with St Michael's lively and vibrant character.

The neighborhood

Little Ilford, about six miles northeast of London, forms part of the London borough of Newham and is also known as Manor Park. It is a multicultural, multi-faith area, with Roman Catholic, Pentecostal and Greek Orthodox churches, Hindu and Tamil temples, and mosques. Also the oldest Jewish cemetery in London. The local markets are an ethnic delight, and you can buy fish and vegetables I've never heard of.

The cast

The celebrant was the Revd Brian Lewis, rector. The Revd Neil Walsh, his curate, who was ordained last year, preached. There were also two candle bearers, male and female.

What was the name of the service?

The Eucharist of the Lord's Supper

How full was the building?

Four in the chancel, a choir of seven ladies, an organist, and eight in the congregation.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

As I hovered over the table with the hymn books and orders of service, the rector handed me one of each and told me to help myself. He later noticed me taking notes as I was admiring the memorial plaques, and gave me a visitor's guide to the church. A gentleman who later gave the first reading asked me if was new to the church. The peace was a jolly affair, with everyone shaking hands. I stopped short of the choir, but no one else did.

Was your pew comfortable?

Wooden chairs, not uncomfortable, each with a gross point kneeler on it. Linked in the front rows, but not where I was sitting. The kneelers were standard issue patterns, with the occasional boating scene, or sheep on a hillside for variety.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

There was a good deal of chat coming from the vestry, some of it a commentary on the smallness of the congregation. In the nave, people either sat quietly or chatted quietly. Some to-ing and fro-ing of servers.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"We will begin with hymn number 318."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Common Praise and a specially printed service sheet. The choir were using a service setting that I didn't recognise. I think they also may have been using a volume of worship songs called Sing Praise.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ. This two manual instrument was restored in 2002, and now the bellows can open fully! Its organisation was previously only suited to an anorexic dwarf – and I should know, having attempted to play it at one happily unmemorable evensong. It has lost its asthmatic air and acquired a sweet flute stop.

Did anything distract you?

Clergy and choir processed in to the first hymn. There appears to be no upper age limit to the choir – nor, to be fair, does there need to be. But I did wonder if the lady who was arguably the oldest singer there would wake up in time to sing the psalm.

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

This was a robed, processed, sung service, in a relaxed formal style. In such a small church, everything becomes intimate. No PA was necessary or used, and the clarity of sound was exemplary.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

5 minutes.

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

7 – The curate is not, I think, a native English speaker, but he took immense care with the language, and made his points clearly.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Washing the apostles' feet demonstrated Christ's servanthood and his hospitality, which we try to emulate. His later words in the garden: Stay with me, remain with me, watch and pray, are also something to which we can dedicate ourselves.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

After a sudden return of winter temperatures and an icy rainstorm earlier that day, it was a pleasure to walk into a warm church. The choir had obviously worked hard to prepare their contribution, and the hymns were to well known melodies. Everyone, from the members of the congregation who gave the readings, to the two clergy, spoke clearly and resonantly. It was a pleasure to hear. I also enjoyed the very lovely altar cloth and frontal to the lectern – a mixture of embroidery and appliqu in a beautiful design that echoed the theme of communion.

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

The wooden floor naturally helped to keep the congregation warm; nothing is worse than cold seeping up through a stone floor. But it was very noisy when the two servers tried to clear the altar quietly. Someone should tell them to walk on tiptoe. Both of them brought down their full body weight with each step, and the floor vibrated in sympathy.

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

It was announced that the church would remain open till 10.00pm for meditation and prayer. One or two others and I left after a few minutes. A lady from the congregation overtook me and we engaged in some light conversation. I asked her to clarify for me some facts about the church.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?


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

8 – I'm already committed, but this is such an intimate family environment, and a lovely, ancient building, that it would be a temptation. Maybe when I retire.

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

Oh yes.

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

The nodding chorister.

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