Sunday in South London

With a jolly head nod to Jem Bloomfield of quiteirregular who wrote the piece inspiring this reply.

I wake, as ever, to my trusty clock radio alarm – weekdays set to 6 Music but today and every weekend Radio 4 – giving me gentle warning to start stirring and thinking about grabbing the shower before my housemate steals in in his own personal dash to be not TOO late for church.

If I’m awake early, it’s the Sunday Service and a well-scripted reader of the intercessory prayers, but normally it’s Paddy O’Connell being drily comic but still fairly formal in a way only Radio 4 presenters can be – hey guys, we’re still wearing our suit jacket in the studio but today we’ve unbuttoned the top button of our shirts. Crazy, right.

There is sunlight seeping in from under my curtains as I try and convince my eyes to open and calculate how long I can doze for. Housemate is now in the shower so I trudge downstairs and boil the kettle for a cafetière-full of the good stuff. If I’ve managed to buy bread on Saturday, on Sunday I treat myself to scrambled egg in a crusty bread roll and munch it while I look out at the garden. By this time Paddy’s onto being sassy about the papers with some dame or other so I tune out and enjoy the little patch of nature we get to control in the South London suburbs. A squirrel is running over our fence onto the shed and there is someone smoking their morning fag on the little concrete balcony on the first floor flats beyond. I remember I need to water my plants and throw some water at the base of some very thin tomato plants which I’m nonetheless proud to have grown from seed. I rub my fingers against the stems and enjoy the delicious green smell of them.

The accordion theme tune of the Archers is a sign I need to get going so I decide what kind of coat the weather warrants (or if I can chance a hoodie) and make sure I’ve got my keys and my neckline won’t cause issues if I bend down to retrieve my service sheet because I’ve dropped it again during a hymn.

I try and find a few tins and things for the food bank box that sits at the back of church. I fought my previous church’s utterly uninterested leadership to make sure they kept theirs in place in the lobby and to find volunteers to deliver it, and ever since I’ve been very aware that I treat the physical act of donating as a weekly (or at least twice monthly) act of worship in itself. My housemate (now running out the door to play keyboard or man the projector at his church, which starts fifteen minutes before mine) volunteers at the Friday morning session of our local Trussell Trust franchise. I pass it when I walk to the tube station. He says it isn’t that busy compared to other branches nearby but it still isn’t empty and that’s far from ideal. So I pop the toothbrush, tin of sardines and carton of UHT milk into my bag and head out.

I pass a few people as I walk past a primary school and blocks of flats, some probably off to other churches. (London is still pretty religious, as you’ll see when you brave Brixton station and hear the regular preacher telling you to repent, the smart JW ladies stood politely beside their Portuguese leaflets and the gaggles of schoolgirls wearing hijabs, among others.) When I turn into the meandering, more upmarket side road towards church, it’s only birds and a family off to the common with their son on a scooter. I admire the gardens and the detached well-kempt houses, and stop at intervals to smell overhanging roses or honeysuckle.

Finally I cross the smart mini shopping street opposite the yuppie bakery and the Co-op whose reduced section I’ll be rummaging in later (now a regular part of my weekly pilgrimage to this part of town). I am, as ever, roughly five minutes late but it’s probably fine if I speed up and anyway they start at four minutes past really. Another parishioner is arriving too and we give each other sheepish smiles as we tiptoe up to the double glass doors into the church building, just as the vicar is beaming out at us in her magnificent purple/green/red (adjust for liturgical season) cope, arms outstretched aloft and welcoming us to the Eucharist. She winks at me down the aisle as I take my red hymnbook, blue service booklet and a notice sheet from the lady welcomer and slide onto one of the side rows which has got the wooden shelf over  the radiator. Sometimes I sit with my friends, one of the other twenties-thirties gang who, like me, have all appeared in the last year or so (according to our beloved CurateFace, as she is known to her friends). Often I like sitting on my own with my thoughts and prayers, but within Peace-ing distance of another soul who I can say hello to and attempt to remember their name. I always give any nearby baby a wave and a smile – one habit of many I have picked up from my father.

Off in the wings I see a small group of official processing folk, whose roles I don’t fully understand but there’s one with a cross on a stick (the crozier?), one gently dangling a steaming thurible full of incense (the thurifer – I know that one) and a couple of child acolytes, all in white robes. They wait for the organist, leaning precariously out of the organ loft to see, to strike up, before they set off.

The sun beams jauntily down through the high windows as the incense lazily circles upwards and we stand up to greet the Gospel. Members of the robed party move to the centre of the aisle, wave the porous smoking metal ball in various directions, and we turn to face CurateFace who crosses herself, chest, shoulders and lips as she reads clearly from the story according to Matthew. I think about how I like this part as it literally puts the Gospel in the centre of the service. Eat your heart out, ‘Bible-based’ low church evangelical snobbery.

Later we all exchange the polite English handshake of liturgical peacemaking, except for us young’ins who hug each other and say ‘alright?’, and the Vicar and Curate who make sure everyone gets a serious bear hug. The Vicar reaches the back and just remembers to announce the next hymn in time but forgets to turn her microphone back on.

After the children have done their bit (recapping what sounds like a full Biology lesson or showing improbable crafts involving lolly sticks) and we’ve been blessed and processed out at, I drop off my donations and join the gang for coffee or picking up leaflets. There’s a Lent course happening, a book group meeting, a temporary winter homeless shelter to volunteer to cook for and an appeal for bikes or furniture for Syrian refugees who we’re helping to settle into the borough, through a great local community group that the church is part of. Over twenty families have arrived in our borough in the last few years. Today there are two microwaves at a bench at the back of church, presumably to be delivered to the newest families.

I queue for a coffee and catch up on the week’s news from my friends (tiring job hunting, redundancies, but also gigs, art galleries, books) whilst I also try in my shy way to chat to at least one new person – even if it’s someone I’ve seen every week but not formally met. I don’t always succeed before they slope off but I hate the thought of people not being welcomed, and in church of all places.

For a third week running I decide I don’t really need the old guide to New Testament Greek from the bookstall, and check whether that copy of the God Delusion is still there from the Christmas Fayre in late November. It is.

And suddenly we’re done, kids are tugging at ankles and we head out into the midday sun and see what providence and sell-by dates have brought us at the Co-op. Quiche and cherries for lunch it is then.


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