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31 July 2015


Clapham ‘Conks’

I OFTEN pass a south-London place of worship with a poster that boasts: “Want to experience something different, unique and frankly — life-changing? Come join us on Sunday mornings at 11 a.m.”

I never see any other sign of life, and it is not clear under whose management it now is; but I recall when it was Grafton Square United Reformed Church. I once played the organ there; and, at an ecumenical service, a year or two before the URC pulled out in 2002, we looked at wild geese on a screen, and released red balloons, to mark Pentecost. Not my style, but hey.

The neat and functional post-war building replaced a Victorian Congregational chapel with soaring spire, described as “ostentatious” in the foreword to a carefully researched new book, written before memories of a well-connected flock disappear: Clapham Dissenters*.

Ostentation was in the air: Clapham had three spires, the Roman Catholic one being now the sole survivor. The Grafton Square spire finally succumbed to a German V2 rocket (the last of the war, it has been suggested). The author traces a complex history of Dissent back to the Clarendon Code and beyond. But what struck me was that the chapel was for a time decidedly — if not, indeed, uniquely in Congregational circles — on the “high” side.

The Revd G. S. Russell had a choir of men and boys in cassocks and surplices, and liturgical services based on the Prayer Book. The musical standard was high enough “for Dr Vaughan Williams to come and sing on occasions, under my organist”, Russell recorded in a memoir, The Road Behind Me (Macmillan, Toronto, 1936).

One worshipper at that time was Pamela Hansford Johnson, a local girl who was later married to a fellow novelist, C. P. Snow. Neither is widely read these days, I think. She had been enticed away from St Mark’s, Battersea Rise (where she had come “to enjoy the ritual”), by a Nonconformist aunt, but later returned to the C of E, which is just as well. Otherwise we might never have had The Humbler Creation, her novel that was the talk of the theological colleges in the early 1960s: it’s about an agonised clergyman with an unpleasant wife in an unfashionable part of Kensington.

Mr Russell recalled that Anglicans came to his chapel because their own churches were too “low”: a surprise, given the C of E churches that were within walking distance. Part of the passed-over suburban history of Clapham is that after Wilberforce and the other Evangelical grandees departed, the Parish Church came under energetic high-church management, and the new daughter churches went generally a good deal further up the candle.

I can even think of a title for the book someone ought to write next: After the Clapham Sect. That is “sect” as something quite different from a rude word for the Free Church crowd, I should add.


*Clapham Dissenters: From persecuted group to prestigious congregation by Ivor Thomas Rees (yLolfa, £9.95 (£9); 978-1-78461-076-0)


Feed the minds

IT WAS General Synod lite in York. Not only was the meeting concluded on the Monday: reform and renewal had got as far as the menu served by the University’s catering staff.

For those of us who find it hard to say no, the York sessions have always given the quietus to any ideas about watching our weight. The cooked breakfast alone would keep one going till after evensong in ordinary circumstances.

But the long, drowsy afternoons and evenings and endless socialising (or compiling of the Church Times reports in a viewless garret) make the temptation to return to the trough, in search of new reserves of energy, hard to resist. The sensible thing is to skip meals, of course.

This summer, however, there was a courageous transition to soup and sandwiches one evening; and baked puddings and custard had been banished from all meals except Sunday lunch (which did still feature roast beef and Yorkshires). Unless I am mistaken, the spicy theme of Sunday evening’s fare was an innovation in diversity in tune with the presentation by the committee for black and minority-ethnic concerns.

One of the few memorable quotes rang out from a breakfast queue at Vanbrugh College, when it was asked whether everyone in the queue was waiting for more bacon to arrive. “Yes, indeed! Jesus died on the cross so that I could eat bacon,” was an ebullient synodsman’s reply.



IT WILL be a different body in November. From the list of retiring members, 54 of the laity, by my reckoning, have signified that they are not standing for election again, as well as 39 of the clergy.

Five years ago, there was a cliffhanger about the episcopate (if you recall) which prompted some who might have thought of retiring to stand again. That gave the assembled throng an even more than usually silvery look as the quinquennium ground to its close.

I wonder whether the relative size of the lay exodus has anything to do with impetuous comments made after the women-bishops débâcle of November 2012. The consensus that the new Measure is better has helped to clear the air, but cannot unsay all that was said. And the bossy tone so much more noticeable these days needs to be suppressed, too, I suggest, if lay people are to feel the Synod is worth their time.

A lay stalwart, Tom Sutcliffe, has written about his 25 years on the Synod in the Southwark diocesan periodical The Bridge. “Being on Synod takes concentration, nerve, a willingness to learn,” he writes. “New boys especially have to get used to being patronised. Women are treated more politely. But Synod is still not user-friendly for laity.”

The managerial spirit in the higher echelons has got out of hand, the place is even more clericalised than it was, and more mavericks are needed, he argues. “Synod should be a sounding-board for everyone. So anyone can stand. The thing is to get the best people elected.”

That means brains before beauty, unless it’s of character, of course.


Unlikely story

“RELIGIOUS literacy” is the buzz phrase of choice now, and actually does mean something, for once; so one ought to take it seriously.

As all of us can contribute to it in our own ways, I thought CT readers would appreciate knowing that I recently received a press release from “a centre for religious literacy” which described Anjum Anwar as “the first woman with a headscarf to work in an Anglican cathedral”.

Now, I may be betraying my age, but . . .


Mon 04 Jul @ 10:48
100 years ago: ‘A cyclone of violence’ https://t.co/tvGNC10Zi1

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