St John's, Deptford

St John's, Deptford, London


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St John's
Location: Deptford, London
Date of visit: Friday, 13 June 2014, 12:00pm

The building

St John's is an impressive Victorian landmark positioned on a leafy corner near its eponymous station. It was designed by PC Hardwicke, a fourth-generation architect with the profession running through both sides of his family, and established in 1855. At some point, presumably about 50 years ago, it was renovated to create space that could be used for other purposes than worship namely a spacious and functional kitchen and hall area, above which, where the gallery used to be, is a badminton court! Have you ever seen a church with a badminton court, or a badminton court with a stained-glass window? We understand it is also used for other purposes. It was plain white and bright, with more plain windows than stained glass and nothing particularly ornate about it.

The church

They call themselves "open evangelical" and are one of three local churches in a team ministry. They have Sunday morning and evening services in a variety of styles, from caf church to communion and contemplative prayer. One of the sister churches offers Sunday worship with a cooked breakfast! Among them they are also involved in outreach work with homeless people and asylum seekers in the community, care homes for the elderly and something called a Besom Project.

The neighborhood

St John's was built in the latter half of the 19th century as a "New Town" for the working class, and is in Deptford, a suburb of south-east London. There was a horrific accident at the station on a foggy winter evening in 1957, when two trains collided and took down the railway bridge, which landed on top of them. Nearly 100 people died and almost 200 more were injured. Due to improved transport links in recent years, it is becoming gentrified. House prices have rocketed to accommodate commuters to the financial district.

The cast

The Rt Revd Michael Ipgrave, Bishop of Woolwich, performed the commendation. The Revd Heston Groenewald, curate, preached. The Revd Trevor Donnelly, vicar of the sister Church of the Ascension, read the summary of the Law and the intercessions and presided at the eucharist. An archdeacon and one or two other clergy were included in the procession, but didnt have an obvious role.

What was the name of the service?

The Funeral of Ken Brown with Holy Communion

How full was the building?

Full to bursting with rows and rows of extra plastic chairs on both sides and at the back. There were well over 200 people present, and a very diverse congregation it was, as befits South London. There was a healthy contingent of at least a dozen Shipmates, plenty of friends and family, a good turnout from the congregation, some members of the local Labour party, and several of Kens colleagues. There was also representation from the local pub, including staff, and a smattering of clergy and several of Kens fellow lay-readers from the diocese.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

There was a veritable army of greeters, wardens and sidespeople ensuring that everyone had an order of service and somewhere to sit.

Was your pew comfortable?

It was a Victorian box pew, possibly more comfortable than the emergency plastic chairs. There were, however, very few kneelers which probably says something about the local worship habits.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Reverently chatty. The bells were ringing, and people were greeting their neighbours. Suddenly, just as the service was about to start, there was a chaotic rush to set out the extra chairs.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

As the procession followed the coffin into the church, the curate pronounced: "I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live" (John 11:25-26). There were five more sentences of scripture. Having begun in such a formal way, the curate then launched into a very chatty welcome, saying that Ken would have liked that it was Friday 13th, and that Kens "fingerprints" were all over the service. He said that it was 40 years too early for Ken to have died. After that, the service began with the formal welcome: "We meet in the name of Christ Jesus, who died and was raised to the glory of God the Father."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The family had prepared a beautiful order of service based on the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, featuring all the words needed and three wonderful photos of Ken.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ, well played. There is an ongoing fundraising exercise for its restoration and a collection was taken for that purpose.

Did anything distract you?

Several of us were taken by surprise when the collection plates went round, which they did rather rather randomly. Someone noticed that a bottle of hand sanitiser had been left on the altar. One Shipmate noted the elaborate hats, collars and cuffs of the ladies in the choir stalls. Someone else was distracted by a baby not because it was squalling but because it slept through the whole thing, gently snoring! There was an elderly gent in a back pew muttering throughout, and some were distracted when the words of the 1662 liturgy took a slightly unfamiliar form in mid-sentence. That sounds like a lot, but this report is a committee effort. Its not as if anyone was really distracted from the main business.

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

Middle-of-the-road Anglican (one Shippie pointed out that Ken once said that all Anglicans think that theyre middle-of-the-road!), with deviations: notably the 17th-century language of the liturgy on one hand, and the abundant instructions as to what was about to happen next on the other. Also, some of us were surprised when the bishop suddenly started sprinkling the coffin with holy water and rosemary at the commendation. The hymns were classics, chosen by Ken himself. He had wanted all nine verses of "Amazing Grace", but they only found six. With "Jerusalem" as the gradual and "Be Thou My Vision" (Kens favourite) after communion, a lot of people didnt even appear to need the printed words. The intention had been for Ken to be taken out to the socialist anthem "The Red Flag", but that was transferred to the graveside, and the coffin was instead tolled out of the church with 57 bongs of the tenor bell from the tower.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

4 minutes.

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

8 – The sermon followed four tributes: from Kens sister, the former incumbent of the church, an old friend, and his daughter. The curate paid tribute to them, and then said that we all had stories we could share later in the pub. Suddenly we realised we were into the sermon. The score is high partly because the sermon was admirably short and quoted Ken a lot.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Hope. The curate used as the basis for his homily the sermon Ken had delivered at Easter, about which he had agonised on the Ship. Ken had been a lay reader in this church, and that was when he had told them how ill he was, making them repeat after him: "I am at peace with God." Ken was a bearer of hope, and he (the preacher) said that if someone as wise as Ken could have that hope, so can we. "If there is even a chance that this hope is true, we should live like it is."

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The congregational singing was enthusiastic and joyful, but the most moving part of the service was when Kens daughter read us a poem she had written to her father at Christmas. We also noted the immense strength of his mother, who read Psalm 23 as the first lesson. One of our own, the Shipmate known as Spike, read the gospel, and that was also quite special. There were four communion stations, as the church was so packed.

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

The context the fact that, as the curate said, we were meeting 40 years too early for this event. As Kens sister said in her tribute, "The world will be a flatter and less fascinating place without him."

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

Impossible. Everyone knew someone, and we all had each other.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There was a spread in the church, with tea and coffee and finger food, and plenty of socialising in the sunshine while the family attended the service at the graveside. Then we all repaired to Kens local pub, the Rising Sun, for a proper wake with cooked food (curries and more) and several pints of Londons finest beer.

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

5 – If we knew Ken was preaching, we would!

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

Abundantly so. It was deeply faith-affirming.

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

That Ken was on time for a Shipmeet!

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