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It was always the intention of Forward in Faith and Cost of Conscience to involve readers, writers and thinkers from a wide spectrum of church traditions and churchmanships. So Gerry O’Brien and Francis Gardom agreed to attend a church of each other’s tradition on three Sundays in Lent. Gerry of St Nicholas, Sevenoaks went to nearby St John’s, Sevenoaks for the morning Mass; Francis to Emmanuel Wimbledon for their Evening Service. What follows is a résumé of their impressions.

Francis at Emmanuel, Wimbledon

Sunday 9th March

An impressive number of people were in church, two hundred at least. An even larger number regularly attend the morning service at 11am. The two congregations are quite different. Professional people and their families tend to come in the morning; that evening most of the congregation were under twenty-five. On this occasion it was a Communion Service.

Much trouble was taken to make everyone, particularly newcomers, feel at ease. It was explained that Emmanuel practises ‘open communion’. Any baptized Christian ‘in love and charity with their neighbour’ would be welcome to receive the sacrament. Anyone who chose not to receive would be equally respected. To further that mutual charity we were invited to spend five minutes introducing ourselves to the people sitting on either side.

The singing was accompanied by a small orchestra. Their playing was exemplary. The choice of hymns and songs was not exactly to my taste: the words of the first two items had little theological content. It was a relief that the final hymn was of a very different quality. When I saw the author I realized why – it was Charles Wesley!

Churches of all traditions use hymns of doubtful quality. But it seemed hard to discern in the Emmanuel tradition any sense of participating in the worship of the whole Church in heaven and on earth, which is one of the things the more ‘Catholic’ tradition majors on in its performance of the Liturgy.

The Holy Communion itself was manifestly something of great importance to those participating (an impression reinforced by the absolute silence and deep reverence of the congregation during the actual Communion); but there was ‘other business’, notably the sermon, which was as important, if not more so, than the Sacrament itself. Hence the ‘liturgy’ was reduced to little more than an Old Testament reading, an act of penitence and a Prayer of Consecration from Common Worship.

The clergy wore suits. Communion was brought to people in the pews. The bread was leavened, cut into cubes. The wine was in several chalices passed along the pews and supervised by sidespersons. The unconsumed elements were reverently removed at the end of the service, but what happened to them thereafter I do not know.

I guessed, wrongly, that many worshippers were term-time students living locally. Emmanuel resembles other Evangelical churches in university cities like York, Sheffield and Durham. I asked a young member of Emmanuel whether this was so. To my surprise she said that nearly all those attending are from Wimbledon.

I asked her how there came to be so many young people. She unhesitatingly attributed it to the many week-end and week-long camps for children and young people which Emmanuel supports. The attraction of going away with children and supervising them is considerable – there’s no shortage of young singles and marrieds who give up their weekends to do this. Incidentally, this has a knock-on effect both for children and helpers. Children grow up looking forward to becoming supervisors themselves; young supervisors invite their friends to come and help them which offers an unrivalled chance for evangelism.

I talked with one of the Churchwardens afterwards. He agreed that most of the congregation live locally. At 11am include a large number of doctors, lawyers, teachers and their families attend. The trouble taken with Sunday School children means that there are carefully prepared classes of fifty or more being looked after by young teachers. There are no less than three crêches run twice every Sunday morning: for Babies, Crawlers and Toddlers respectively!

He also told me about church-planting which is another facet of life at Emmanuel. It takes two distinct forms. Sometimes volunteers are recruited from Emmanuel to set up a classical-Evangelical Anglican presence where none exists. This ‘planted’ team worships temporarily in a rented hall.

The second type of church-plant consists of worshippers from Emmanuel attending an Evangelical church that is fighting for survival in the face of diocesan planners. Emmanuel has been supporting a church in nearby Tooting in this way.

In both cases, he told me, such plants may have serious consequences for the younger children of those who have volunteered to be ‘planted’. They find themselves leaving a large Sunday School class of fifty-plus children where everyone knows each other, to go into a totally alien environment of perhaps three or four children whose background is very different from their own.

Sunday 16th March

My second visit confirmed these impressions. This service was a more conventional Evening Service such as I have experienced before.

What struck me was the overall seriousness of those taking part. The atmosphere isn’t lacking in humour or light-heartedness; but underlying everything, the music, the conduct of the service, the sermon, the lessons was the sense that everyone involved was taking a lot of trouble to get it right.

Isaac Watts’ words came to my mind:

I preached as one who would not preach again

And as a dying man to dying men.

Let me end with a paradox. That Sunday morning I had presided at Mass at St Andrew’s, Croydon. That afternoon I conducted a very simple, Evangelical-style service at Domus, a nursing-home in Lewisham for seriously handicapped people. From there I went on to Emmanuel.

As I told the Monday staff meeting at Emmanuel, I couldn’t discover any fundamental discontinuity between my three experiences, St Andrew’s, Domus and Emmanuel. However I had to say that St Andrew’s has one vital ingredient lacking at Emmanuel: the clear sense of being in the presence of angels and archangels, of the Church throughout the ages in heaven and on earth, of the numinous, the awesome, the heavenlies – call it what you will.

On the other hand Emmanuel’s ability to attract two hundred young adults every week may have to do with its very informal approach: certainly many fewer young people attend the churches where I commonly minister.

But is it necessarily either/or? Each tradition has something very important to teach and learn from the other. So it might be a case of both/and!


Gerry O’Brien went to St John’s, Sevenoaks, and found himself asking:

‘What can Evangelicals learn from Anglo-Catholics?’

A cheery greeting from the youthful churchwarden on the door welcomed me to the Sunday morning Sung Mass. I had set foot inside St John’s church, an ABC parish, just once before for a meeting of the Deanery Synod, but that was sometime ago. As I sat down to take stock of my surroundings I was at once aware of the different ambience from the one I am used to. That is not to say things were good or bad, better or worse – simply different.

The wooden pews were softened by a cloth covering, but they felt strange compared with the upholstered chairs on which I sit in my own church. The parquet floor had a well worn look from the generations of worshippers who had used the building, in contrast to the six year old carpets on which I usually walked.

I took time to pray, and then as I looked up I became aware of eighteen candles burning – eighteen more than I am used to. Around the walls were the stations of the cross, something I have seen in Roman churches, but not in Anglican ones. A large cross with a figure of the dying Christ hung from the rafters high above, in contrast to the empty crosses witnessing to the risen Christ with which I was more familiar. There was a flickering red light in the chancel adding to the sense of mystery and unfamiliarity.

As the service began I realized that with about 100 people in church I was to have the entire pew to myself. There would be no cheek by jowl encounters with strangers. The choir processed into church, followed by a lay reader and the priests resplendent in their purple vestments. Few churches can raise choirs these days, let alone robed ones twenty strong, but the procession lent a sense of occasion to the proceedings. As the choir found their places, the lay reader and the priests moved round the altar, and bowed at each side.

I hope it doesn’t sound irreverent to say so but the scene reminded me of the curtain call at the end of the opera. Somehow one felt that something important was happening and that the full cast was assembled. It was in such stark contrast with the lone leader in a lounge suit (or sports jacket) who leads services in my own church.

The New English Hymnal, which I had been given at the door, evoked memories of my schooldays. For seven years I had sung a hymn from it every morning in Assembly (those were the days when assemblies had an unmistakable Christian content). We sang four hymns, from the thirteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. (The following week the hymns were from the fifth, seventeenth and nineteenth centuries). There was something refreshing about coming into a Graham Kendrick free zone. No ‘sing la la to Jesus’ here, but a sense of continuity with Christians over the centuries, sharing their thoughts and their patterns of worship. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that we should write off the hymnody of the last 150 years, but here was worship grounded in its historical roots – a dimension often lacking in Evangelical worship.

The readings were printed out on a sheet entitled Sunday. No pew bibles here, but having the text of the readings was helpful, particularly in view of the soft voice of one of the readers and the variable quality of the amplification system in the church. It struck me that the four readings – Old Testament, Psalm, Gospel and Epistle – gave a significant scriptural content to the service. In my own church, as often as not, there is just one reading in the Morning Service. I confess I found it strange that the Psalm and the Gospel were chanted, but that is a matter of taste. I was surprised that the sermon (about the Eucharist) wasn’t based on any of these readings, but the Vicar assured me afterwards that his usual practice was to give an expository sermon on one of the readings. It was just that things were different in Lent.

The sermon was not at all what I had expected. The vicar started off by asking, ‘Do you believe that bread and wine can be transubstantiated?’ My Evangelical ears pricked up. ‘Actually the question is hardly worth putting,’ he continued, ‘as you all do believe it.’ Well, I was sure I didn’t, but as he explained his argument it became clear that he was not upholding what I thought Catholics mean by transubstantiation, but he argued his case with a logic and persuasion that I could not refute. I’m not sure I agree with everything he said, but I certainly came away realizing that traditional Protestant polemic was far from the whole story. As is often the case in Synod, we can find consensus on many issues and agree to differ on relatively few.

There was a warmth about sharing the peace with other members of the congregation – a practice that now seems to be universal across all brands of churchmanship. It was good to emerge from my isolated pew and press the flesh with real people. They were strangers to me, but they communicated a pleasure at having me in their midst.

As in all Anglican parishes, St John’s attracts those who enjoy the form of worship which is on offer as well as those who come simply because it is their parish church, and they are disinclined to go elsewhere. I was told that there were those who would not personally have chosen to go down the ABC route, which is what the church has done, but the congregation has held together and accommodated a far broader spectrum than the die-hards.

Equally there are many parishes where the motions have not been put for fear of stirring up emotions on both sides, leaving many unhappy that they cannot have the opportunity to choose the ABC route. Perhaps St John’s is a church which has been prepared to face the issue, rather than bury it, and then hold together a heterogeneous congregation as the Body of Christ.

Gerry O’Brien is a lay member of the General Synod representing the Diocese of Rochester. Francis Gardom is Honorary Secretary of Cost of Conscience.