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St Mary the Virgin, Primrose Hill: A church and its people, 1872-2022 by C. J. Kitching

29 April 2022

Christopher Irvine looks at an influential London church and its history

THIS large book delivers what is promised in the subtitle, a chronological record of a church and its people, 1872-2022; and its publication marks the 150th anniversary of St Mary’s, Primrose Hill. It is divided into two parts. The first deals with the origins of the church as a mission “tin tabernacle” and records the achievements and personalities of the first six incumbents (and their curates) making St Mary’s a flagship suburban London church. The second part brings the story to the present time in ten shorter chapters.

Curiously, the strength of this book is its weakness. As a record, it could not be more thorough and detailed, but it may be all the detail that clouds the underlying lines of the narrative. There are lines of continuity and significant change, and some of the key figures in the world of liturgy and church music, such as George Timms, a former chairman of the Alcuin Club, and the composer Martin Shaw and his brother Geoffrey, feature in this record, as do the origins of The English Hymnal.

Behind this gallery of largely forgotten figures looms Percy Dearmer (Vicar, 1901-15). Dearmer’s vision of a liturgical “English Use” or style, maintained during the 20-year incumbency of Arthur Duncan-Jones (later Dean of Chichester), does not stand up to rigorous historical scrutiny, but the underlying conviction that the arts play a vital part in the life and worship of the Church is unquestionably a valid and valuable guiding principle.

There are many other important threads here; the place of the laity in the governance, worship, and mission of the Church is one that is proudly drawn here. And there are others. The promotion of the ministry of women is one, and the priority given to the nurturing of the spiritual life in the parish another, with Quiet Days and retreats.

Steve ReynoldsThe Palm Sunday procession in 2018 on Primrose Hill. From the book

The book rightly focuses on the individuals whose lives shaped a particular place. But are there wider points for the reader to draw from this particular history? The very diversity of the setting, style, and composition of parishes across the Church of England makes it impossible to propose a single model of a “successful parish church”. There are, however, three defining characteristics that crystallise in this study, and these are: the importance of place, the priority of liturgical worship, and a keen social conscience and community engagement.

If this triumvirate broadly defines an Anglican way, then I’m grateful for the history and ongoing witness of St Mary’s, Primrose Hill.

The Revd Christopher Irvine is Priest-in-Charge of Ewhurst and Bodiam, and Rural Dean of Rye, in Chichester diocese, and teaches at Sarum College and the Liturgical Institute, Mirfield.


St Mary the Virgin, Primrose Hill: A church and its people, 1872-2022
C. J. Kitching
Matador £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

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