Mystery Worshipper: E. Lean
Church: St Paul's
Location: Deptford, London
Date of visit: Wednesday, 1 March 2006, 7:30pm
St Paul's was one of the "new churches" built in the early 18th century in rapidly growing industrial or suburban districts. It was designed by the noted Baroque architect Thomas Archer in a similar but distinctively different style from that of Archer's better-known contemporary Nicholas Hawksmoor. The worship space is almost cubical, surrounded by panelled wood and a high gallery, with a roof held up by four immense Corinthian columns (and a half dozen fake ones). Magnificent.
St Paul's has embraced a strong Anglo-Catholic tradition for a long time. It is also known for its ministries to the poor and the homeless.
Post-industrial desolation, posh flats on underutilised commercial sites commonly known as brownfields, vibrant street markets, and vast dilapidated council estates. Deptford was a naval town before London ate it, the original home of the Royal Naval Dockyard and the Royal Small Arms Factory. In the 19th and early 20th centuries it thrived as an industrial centre. Nowadays all the docks and most of the factories have gone, and although it is only a ten minute train ride from central London, it is one of the most deprived places in England.
There were seven or eight robed priests around the table, a deacon or two, four or five persons in cassock and surplice serving in various ways, and at least four other clergy in the congregation, two of whom played some part in the service. I didn't catch all their names, but the celebrant was the Revd Francis Makambwe, vicar at St Catherine's Hatcham, and the preacher was the Revd Esther Prior, curate at St John's Deptford. Also taking part was the Revd Peter Hudson, curate of St Paul's.
What was the name of the service?Deanery High Mass with Imposition of Ashes.
How full was the building?
Perhaps 80 in the congregation, which was just enough not to rattle around like loose change in this really very imposing space.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes, and I was handed a leaflet.
Was your pew comfortable?
Very comfortable. Decent old-fashioned dark wooden pew with lots of space. I was right next to the base of a pillar, which provided a convenient shelf for me to put my service sheet and my glasses on. Plenty of room to move around and stand, sit or kneel as appropriate.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quietly chatty. There were some people who hadn't seen each other for months, and others who had apparently been out for a drink the night before, and they were greeting each other.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Welcome to our Deanery mass."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Service sheet with hymns and liturgy and readings and some usefully irritating typos.
What musical instruments were played?
Did anything distract you?
The choir didn't always sing in tune. Or even in time. And once or twice they didn't seem to agree on which tune or time they should have been singing. There was one set of responses where some choir members finished while others still had two entire words to sing.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Smells and bells and lots of both. There was also what seemed to be an odd selection of hymns for such a church, including "Rock of Ages" and "Just as I am." I wondered if a committee had planned the service and had allowed the evangelicals to choose the hymns so long as the Anglo-Catholics got to organise the liturgy. The chorus "Holy holy holy is the Lord, who was, and is, and is to come" was repeated several times throughout the eucharistic prayer, with each repeat being a slight variant, e.g. "Worthy is the Lord" and "Jesus is the Lord" and finally "Glory to the Lord" as the sacred host was being elevated.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
I had forgotten to bring my watch, and there was no clock visible, but I would estimate about 20 minutes.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – The Revd Prior adopted a self-deprecating style, comparing her own efforts at fasting and prayer with those of other Christians she knows.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
In Lent we should cultivate a broken and a contrite heart, and fasting is one of the spiritual disciplines available to us to help us do that. Fasting should be a natural part of a Christian life. Jesus didn't command it, but he did expect it.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Some of the hymns were pretty good.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Well, the choir's singing was a little odd, and of course the obligatory cell phone went off at some point.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Several people came up to me and ensured that I found my way down to the crypt, where refreshments had been set out.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Tea and biscuits, and vegetable snacks for Lent olives, hummus, sticks of carrot and celery. And some nice cheese, which doesn't strike me as very Lenten. I got the impression that outside Lent things might be rather more indulgent maybe even including the odd gin!
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 – A very friendly congregation, but my tastes lean more toward the evangelical style of service that I'm used to.
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 odd selection of songs.