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3187: St Hilda's, Crofton Park, London
St Hilda's, Crofton Park (Exterior)
Mystery Worshipper: Sipech.
The church: St Hilda's, Crofton Park, London.
Denomination: Church of England, Diocese of Southwark.
The building: The large, dark building stands out in the local skyline, which is mostly comprised of houses, with few office blocks or other towers nearby. The church roof had recently undergone a big restoration project costing a total of 600,000. I was informed on the rather hot day I was visiting that had I done so before the repairs had been finished, the sieve-like nature of the roof would have resulted in the church being considerably cooler. Unlike many churches in London, the building was relatively unscathed by bombing in the Second World War, except (interestingly) for the roof, which shifted position and had to be drawn back into place by metal rods; and the clear glass west window, which featured leading outlining angels and archangels that, alas, were not reproduced in the restoration. The building's external appearance is little different from when it was completed in 1908. A tower had originally been contemplated, but it was determined that the building's foundation would not have been able to support it. Various renovations were made to the interior over the years. The tapestry behind the altar is the original, alhough now somewhat faded. A burglary in 1996 deprived the church of its eagle lectern, several statues, and processional cross. A new lectern and several statues, including one of St Mary in a small shrine in the north aisle, were donated in 1998.
The church: St Hilda's has drawn people in from a wide variety of backgrounds into a broad Anglo-Catholic tradition. I was told there were people who had come from Methodist backgrounds, from Baptist and from Pentecostal churches. The church evidently had a rich ethnic background too, which was largely representative of the diversity within the Lewisham borough. The church acts very much as a community centre, with a wide variety of activities going on during the week, including baby massage, kick boxing, tai chi and zumba.
The neighbourhood: Crofton Park is a small residential area of south-east London, in the borough of Lewisham. Bordered by Brockley to the north and Honor Oak to the south, it is a quintessentially suburban residential area with all local amenities within a few hundred yards of one another. The only thing that prevents it from having a village feel is the sheer amount of traffic that runs through it. Crofton Park was once home to the famous anarchic comedian, Spike Milligan; a silver birch tree dedicated to his memory is situated outside the local library.
The cast: The service was led by the Revd Stuart Bates, vicar. He was aided by five acolytes. A few unnamed members of the congregation pitched in with scripture readings and intercessions.
The date & time: Sunday, 18 June 2017, 10.15am.

What was the name of the service?
Solemn Mass (Sung Eucharist with Incense).

How full was the building?
I counted about 45 people present; to fill the church, you'd need about three times as many. I understood that I was one of three visitors. Quite a few regular members were away, as it was Father's Day. It was noticeable that the majority of the church was quite elderly.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
As I came in, I was handed a hymn book with a few sheets tucked into it. I was also greeted by Father Stuart, who spotted me as a visitor straight away and immediately warned me that we wouldn't have a full sermon, but that we be doing some artwork instead. After I took my seat, two people, who were evidently hard of hearing, noticed that I was a visitor and started talking about me rather audibly before deciding to ask me if I was new to St Hilda's.

Was your pew comfortable?
We had wooden seats that were rigidly linked together. It would be a bit severe to describe them as a torture device, but they certainly were far from comfortable. What was good was the spacing between the rows, which was ample, giving room for people to kneel if they felt inclined to, and plenty of space to get out and circulate between rows during the peace.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The liturgical script encouraged us to sit in silence and contemplate before the service. This was respected but not rigorously adhered to, as the atmosphere was quiet but not silent. That was until the organist began, at which point people became a little more audible in greeting one another.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"A very good morning and welcome to those of you who arrived on time."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
We mostly sang from the New English Hymnal, with one hymn printed on a separate sheet.

What musical instruments were played?
An organ. Their website states: "The organ was built by Messrs Conacher & Co. of Huddersfield and was erected in 1911 [but is] now defunct, although outside pipes remain." I was not able to determine the provenance of the instrument I heard today.

Did anything distract you?
During the eucharist, my eye was caught by a little movement in front of the altar that I'd never seen before. The rail was in two parts, allowing the priest and acolytes to walk between the two halves. But they produced a small folding device, placed it in between the two halves of the rail, and then pulled out the railings, which were evidently extendable. Then they joined them in the middle, where the device allowed them to interlock. This effectively made complete the barrier between the altar and the congregation. It was smoothly done, but struck me for its novelty factor.

St Hilda's, Crofton Park (Interior)

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It would best be described as informal Anglo-Catholic. Though there was the conservative trio of liturgy, smells, and bells, it wasn't overly fussy and it didn't feel like a performance that the congregation was observing; it was much more participatory than that. The sermon was curtailed so that we could sit at some tables at the back and do some painting. On a small bit of canvas there was an outline of a Pentecost flame drawn. We were given 20 minutes to colour it in, using some acrylic paints. Father Stuart later explained to me that it was essentially Messy Church, but that he veered away from using the term, as it can put some people off.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
8 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – Father Stuart spoke in a very down-to-earth way, but with a slightly hurried manner. His sermon, though, didn't bear much relation to any of the texts read.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Hearing God's call to mission. Some churches are growing, often because they're doing things a bit different from traditionalist churches. But this doesn't mean that they are necessarily abandoning liturgy or the reading of the Bible. Each of us has a gift to offer in mission.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
In going forward for the eucharist, some of the elderly members of the congregation struggled to get up the steps to the chancel. But later on, those that didn't make it had the elements brought to them where they sat. Combined with the fact that the church was readily accessible by wheelchair (indeed, there appeared to be a spare wheelchair just inside the main door), it felt wonderfully inclusive.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Just prior to the painting, the vicar encouraged us all to close our eyes, place our feet flat on the floor with hands on our laps, breathe deeply, and imagine ourselves in the upper room before Pentecost. Having been to a hypnotist's stage show before, I found this litany strikingly familiar. It was a decidedly uncomfortable moment and one I'm not convinced had any place in a church service.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
A few people came to introduce themselves as I was looking at the Stations of the Cross around the church, until the churchwarden invited me over for coffee. I was then engaged in a most stimulating conversation with Father Stuart where we covered matters of philosophy, art and creativity, churchmanship, symbolism, and shifting demographics in the local area, amongst other things.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
It took a little while to get a black coffee, as there was a presumption that coffee comes with milk in it. It was served in a posh china cup with a saucer. It wasn't strikingly brilliant but it wasn't bad. There was also a plate of biscuits on offer for those who so wanted.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 – For those in search of an Anglo-Catholic church, this would be a marvelous place to come. Perhaps not my style of churchmanship, but I found it very welcoming and friendly.

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

St Hilda's, Crofton Park (Statue)

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
Painting Pentecost flames.
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