Mystery Worshipper: Penfold
Church: St Thomas the Apostle
Location: Nunhead, London
Date of visit: Sunday, 25 November 2007, 6:30pm
Horrible! It was the worst thing about the whole experience. The building in its present form dates from 1973 and was consecrated in 1989. It is a very dated, ageing, white cube type structure that looks more like a neglected community hall than a church. One could easily walk past it without realising what it is, save for a large cross out front. The interior is somewhat better, with altar, statues and stations of the cross looking glitzy but presentable.
The congregation was founded in 1905, when it met in a room next to a blacksmith's forge. During World War II their building at the time was badly damaged by a bomb that fell nearby, and the congregation met in a room above a pub while repairs were made. This is the only Catholic church in the Nunhead area so it has a wide remit. It celebrates three masses on Sundays in English and one in Spanish. Once each month a mass is celebrated in Ewe, an African language. This is a very positive multicultural church with great diversity among its members.
Nunhead is primarily a residential district, very ethnic. The church is located in an area of Nunhead that is generally rather suburban.
The Revd Eddie Higgins, SSCC.
What was the name of the service?Mass.
How full was the building?
It was actually rather busy for an evening Sunday service. People were spread out, so it was hard to tell. But well over 60 people attended and I would guess this was about 20 per cent of the maximum capacity for the building.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
No. There were no greeters. I assumed I needed to collect a notice sheet and managed to find a service book. I exchanged smiles and handshakes during the peace. That was it, really.
Was your pew comfortable?
Long wooden bench pews with fitted kneelers of the hardest variety possible. The benches looked like they needed a new lease on life but were not uncomfortable until we knelt.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Most people arrived directly on time or minutes before the service. Others came slightly earlier and found a seat, read the notice sheet, browsed the service book, or lighted candles. A few prayed quietly.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The service book contained all the passages to follow, with references for more reading, plus parish announcements. It was really informative, compact and handy.
What musical instruments were played?
No musical instruments or singing.
Did anything distract you?
The building nearly drew me to tears. I wondered whether many of the congregation would describe themselves as Catholic chavs, but I prayed to be forgiven of that sin.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Sadly like many Catholic services these days, the mass seemed to lack the pomp and reverence of days gone by. It was Vatican II bog standard, with some bells, limited use of servers, and a general watered-down feeling. Sort of bland, really.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – I actually liked the priest's style and delivery a lot. He presented the issues well and related them to reality with very clear examples while maintaining church teaching. He seemed very sincere, approachable and generally a person you are glad was called to this vocation.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
What do we mean when we say that Christ is king? He spoke of power and its abuses, individual power, salvation and sin. He used the gospel story of the good thief to illustrate God's love and forgiveness.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The building, the empty welcome, and people's fast escape after mass.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Everyone had left within a few minutes so there was little point in waiting around apart from to light votive candles. No one approached me or said anything, but I had a quick few words with the priest outside before heading home.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
4 – Too cold and watered down for me.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?