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|1966: St James, Bermondsey, London
James, Bermondsey, London.
Church of England, Diocese
It's one of the 600 Waterloo churches (of which six are in South
London) – churches built with money granted by Parliament in
1818 in celebration of England's victory at the Battle of Waterloo.
Designed in the neo-classical style by architect James Savage
and completed in 1829, St James has a greater claim to the title
Waterloo church than some, because it boasts a ring of bells
cast from cannon captured in the battle. However, it comes off
as a poor cousin to four of the other South London Waterloo
churches in respect to its columns on the entrance porch: it
has only four, while the others are graced with six. The church
is, however, a major local landmark due to its tall steeple
topped by a dragon wind vane that is visible from a great distance.
It's a diverse community, in which over 20 nationalities worship
together. St James is an "open evangelical" church with Alpha
courses, parent and toddler groups, and regular weekly Bible
study. The church is part of a group ministry.
Bermondsey is on the south side of the River Thames just east
of the iconic Tower Bridge. It grew up in the 18th century as
a riverside industrial centre. By the mid-19th century it had
become a slum of note, with most employment being connected
in some way with the wharves and factories serving the busy
river trade. The area was hard hit in the bomb strikes of the
Second World War, and struck again with the demise of the river
economy in the years after the war. Bermondsey is now enjoying
a revival and regeneration, and renovated waterfront properties
are attracting money to the area. It's a deeply historic part
of London, but you wouldn't notice that just passing through.
The service was led by the reader, Penny Molyneux. The Revd
Shola Aoko, curate, preached. This was Mrs Aoko's last Sunday
at St. James. The vicar, the Revd Stewart Hartley, had to take
a service at one of the local sister churches, but he returned
in time to make a presentation to the curate.
The date & time:
Palm Sunday, 28 March 2010, 10.30am.
What was the name of the service?
How full was the building?
When the service started, there were only about 40 people in
the building. Half an hour later, the attendance had climbed
to about 60, maybe more. It was by no means full (the Waterloo
churches were built to accommodate crowds), but everyone was
well spread out.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes. I was greeted and handed a service sheet and a palm cross.
Was your pew comfortable?
It was just a pew, but there were enough occasions to stand
and sing that it was fine.
How would you describe the pre-service
There was an air of busy-ness. I was quite early, actually,
and got to watch the ladies setting up a display at the front.
It featured a table draped with yards of cloth, around which
were spread pine branches – a practical solution in lieu of
palm branches, I later discovered. On the table was a framed
slogan that I couldn't read from my seat quite far back. Books
propped this up, and also held down the end of a string on which
bobbed a silver star-shaped balloon. The congregation were assembling
and chatting in small groups. The organ played for a while,
then it seemed to switch to some piped music just before the
What were the exact opening
words of the service?
"Good morning, everybody. I'm Penny. Welcome to our morning
service. Has everyone been handed a cross?" There was then a
flurry of activity while a few more crosses were distributed.
Penny went on to explain that Mrs Aoko (whom she called Shola)
would be preaching and that Betty would be playing the organ.
It was all very first-name friendly and quite casual.
What books did the congregation
use during the service?
The Bermondsey Group Ministry Service Book for Morning and
Evening Prayer; The Good News Bible; Songs
What musical instruments were played?
Betty on the organ, plus a gentleman on an electric piano and
guitar. The electric piano might have been responsible for the
"piped" music just before the service. There were also three
singers. As the service jumped back and forth between "songs"
and "hymns", everyone got a couple of turns.
Did anything distract you?
Other than the balloon bobbing away on a string front and centre?
There were several electric fires mounted quite high on the
wall (Why? Heat rises. This thought distracted me a few times.)
And at the end, when the banns of marriage were read out, there
was evidently to be a wedding the following Saturday. Holy Saturday!
That distracted my thoughts for a while.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or
It wasn't quite happy clappy, but sometimes it seemed to be
trying to be. A few people clapped a bit. The first song was
a Graham Kendrick number, during which the children did a sort
of Palm Sunday procession around the decorated table at the
front of the church. Later, the congregation were encouraged
to follow the readings from the pew Bibles, but there was confusion
at one point when the lector was clearly using a different edition
and gave out the wrong page number. I never thought I would
say this, but this might be a church that would benefit from
an overhead projector system. Or maybe just listening to the
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how
good was the preacher?
3 It was almost like a seminar. The curate, Mrs Aoko,
did a lot of striding up and down the aisle, really trying to
involve the congregation in the sermon, throwing out questions
and keeping on asking until she got the answer she needed. She
made some good points, especially when she talked about her
recent visit to Nigeria and the difficulties and persecution
there, but I would guess that she hadn't had time to practice
the sermon; if she had done, she could have tightened it up
In a nutshell, what was
the sermon about?
It was about being ready to follow Jesus, to be disciples, to
go where God sends us. Jesus sent two disciples to fetch the
colt on which he would ride in triumph into Jerusalem, and off
they went. We should be so obedient in our own lives. But then
Mrs Aoko veered off into standing up to resistance, and from
there she turned to resisting the shackles of Satan. She seemed
to be off course, and I'm afraid she took me with her.
Which part of the service
was like being in heaven?
The farewell to the departing curate, for which the vicar had
clearly rushed back from another service. All the children went
up for a photo with her at the front of church, and there was
a presentation. There was clearly a lot of love there. And then
the children all processed out of church with their palm leaves
oops, I mean pine branches, which was quite sweet.
And which part was like
being in... er... the other place?
I don't personally prefer Graham Kendrick, so that first song
may have soured me for the rest of the service. But I really
think that significant parts of the service seemed dumbed-down.
For example, when the songs were actually hymns, they were invariably
introduced as "traditional", as if Palm Sunday called for something
a little old-fashioned. And when it came to the psalm, we were
told to turn to the "first part of the Bible" and to say it
"antiphonally" – and then there was a detailed breakdown of
how that was meant to work (which it didn't, particularly).
Then when it was time for the epistle and the gospel, we were
told to turn to the "back of the Bible". Do we not know what
Old Testament and New Testament mean? After all, this is a church
that runs a Bible study course every Sunday evening!
What happened when you
hung around after the service looking lost?
A woman came up to me in the pew, shook my hand, and kindly
invited me to stay for refreshments.
How would you describe the after-service
Refreshments were served in an alcove at the back of the nave.
Beverages were fair trade and served in real cups. There were
also biscuits. Unexceptional but absolutely fine.
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
2 I am afraid I am not being fair, as there was a lot
going on with the curate's farewell and Palm Sunday, but it
was just not cohesive. It felt over-complicated. The church
itself is big, light, bright, airy, clean and uncluttered, but
the service managed to make the place look untidy, from the
dodgy balloon to the mixture of music styles to the over-long
sermon. There was no thread running through it.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a
Let's just say it didn't put me off.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
Pine branches cleverly standing in for palm fronds. Why not?
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