reLentless Commuting – St John the Evangelist, Eastbourne

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Distance: 65.9 miles
Journey time: 1 hour 45 minutes (not including overnight stay)
Walk > Train > Car

St John’s is my parents’ church. And so, by default, still kind of my own. The important Christian festivals are spent here: Christmas, Easter, Mother’s Day. Being unmarried, unfianced and unlikely to be either any time soon leaves an aching chasm of belonging when standing in any other church, compared to the security I feel standing with my family.

The idea of the church “family” is a powerful one, but for the people that worship among people they are not related or married to (or hoping to find the latter there), in reality it often falls short. If I am honest, this is the church that I commute to. True, it is a commute that comes with several nights’ free accommodation and all the beer I can drink before Dad notices, but this is a journey I am always willing to take. And, like my workaday commute, the final destination is eventually home.

We drive to the church…if I took public transport it would probably take an hour. Hopefully my additional presence offsets the trip a little.

St John’s is the first church in Eastbourne to have a female vicar. In other dioceses they’re almost ten a penny, but in Chichester it’s a big deal. Along with being a poster child for the new dawn on the south coast, Alyson is just lovely. She gives me a huge welcoming smile and says how nice it is to see me before rushing off to berobe. Meanwhile I am saying hi to all the wonderful people I already know in the congregation; brief greetings because something more in depth is what the post-service coffee is all about.

It is Mothering Sunday. I found out from the gospel of Google after the service that Mothering Sunday began as a throw-back from a Roman festival in honour of the mother goddess Cybele, which adapted well to worship of the Virgin Mary. It evolved somewhat over the centuries until becoming almost obsolete by the twentieth century, when American and Canadian soldiers in Europe during the second World War brought back the custom. Not the best of services to be back with my parents – a dangerous reminder that I am not well on the way to being a mother myself.

I look around the church, with its leaning towards an older female demographic, and wonder how Mothering Sunday falls on the shoulders of other women, those with children and without. Then I turn back to my own mother and give her hand a squeeze.

The service is very traditional: welcome, slightly patronising children’s slot, hymn as they all troop out and then reading, hymn, reading, sermon, prayers, communion, final hymn and dismissal. Oh yes, and the Peace. Needless to say it registered low, but there was the guilt for not getting round to everyone. Rock, hard place, peace.

Alyson did a good sermon on Nehemiah’s rebuilding of the city walls. My favourite part was her entirely sincere confession that she loves the beginning of chapter 3, where it describes in great detail who built which gates: “how wonderful to be remembered forever for being part of the work.”

From conversations I’ve had with other people, the warmth that I feel at this church is not just the reflected glow from my parents’ place within it. The congregation has grown in the last few years, and while it may not be bursting with bright young twenty-somethings, guitars or plasma screens, it is somewhere that welcomes people as they are; gives them space for worship and reflection. All this being said, there is no one else there my age. At the moment anyway. Blink and I’ll be well into the average.

I am looking for a church with people like those at St John’s. People who are close without being cliquey, loving without being insincere, challenging without being judgmental and welcoming without being suffocating. I guess it takes time to discover the full measure of a church family. It will take years (and maybe a husband and eventual sprogs of my own) to find the same security elsewhere that St John’s affords me through birth.

NB. I realise reading back that this sounds a little like I’m suggesting the only way to feel comfortable in a church is as a married couple with children. Hell no! But the security of being in my own family unit within the wider church family is what I’m able to relax into. In contrast being single in a church is not easy, whatever age you are and however long you’ve been there.

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reLentless Commuting – Southwark Cathedral

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Distance: 6.2 miles
Journey time: 30 minutes
Walk > Train > Walk

I’m not sure any more if 30 minutes is a reasonable journey time. Or 6 miles an acceptable sphere of diocesan influence. But I had heard on the grapevine that Southwark Cathedral is a good place for worship. And as the intrepid church commuter I am, I duly went.

I was late. Not hugely late, but I missed the welcome, the first hymn, the collect, the Kyries and the first reading. I also lost a good 60 seconds being distracted by the Cathedral shop. It is most bizarre going to a church which seems to be first and foremost a tourist attraction. I wouldn’t be surprised if part of their community outreach involved ministering to the people who actually buy the tat found in cathedral shops. Multi-coloured arch-shaped pencil sharpener anyone?

Once over the metaphorical haha of consumer temptation, I found myself in a packed service. The only spare seats were on the stone buttresses at the side; great view of the pulpit and an escape route should the incense get too murky.

The service itself is very high church. There is a full male choir, traditional choral settings, the aforementioned incense and the sanctus bell. The gospel is read from the centre of the church, there is what seems to be a Greek chorus of celebrants and I got the unnerving feeling that I should know the moves – like being on the dance floor when Saturday Night Dance comes on and I can’t quite keep up.

Despite this, the Peace barely registered on the Palm-sweat scale, as it was one of the most welcoming Peaces I have shared in a long time. We 6 scattered along the side of the nave warmly shook hands with each other and then watched as one of the greek chorus – a charming and graceful man who I later shared the journey home with part way – greeted every single person down the right-hand side of the cathedral, including ourselves. His efforts extended well into the second hymn, but I felt were just wonderful. In a place of worship where so many of the congregants are likely transient, it seemed a very honest representation of what the “Peace” should be.

The sermon was excellent. The preacher was Canon Andrew Nunn and he spoke on the parable of the fig tree: Not before we know God, we know ourselves and we can love ourselves, can we change. Ironically, considering the reputation of Southwark Cathedral, he used the words of Oscar Wilde to emphasis this and his story of the Selfish Giant. I was glad that I had come to the service if only to hear such a good sermon. I like that feeling.

Excitingly, the service sheet has Cliffs Notes throughout – useful snippets of trivia, suggested prayers and the occasional reflection, which reads a little like a biblical fortune cookie. I’ve kept it for bedtime reading.

At the end of the service I wandered through to have coffee. Well, technically I went to find the toilet, but it turns out that was also the way to the refreshments. Had I not needed the rest room, I would have probably aimlessly found my way out through the shop, bought a bookmark and left wondering if coffee was served at any of the other four Sunday services.

Small plastic cup in hand, I turned to find myself face to face with someone I knew. Fortunately he thought the same thing. We ran through home towns, uni, friendship groups and church mistakes before we remembered meeting at Greenbelt last year. Gosh darn, is the Christian world small.

I was home by 1pm and it felt like a very restful, refreshing Sunday morning. While high church isn’t something I would be able to get used to on a regular basis, it was a good experience. I think perhaps in the same way Anglican churches are starting to embrace alt worship styles, there is always a place for high church pomp and procession to bring a new aspect of God and spirituality to the year.

reLentless Commuting – St Luke’s West Holloway

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Distance: 10 miles
Journey time: 1 hour
Bus > Walk > Tube > Walk

Aside from the lady on the bus arguing with the driver for a long 5 minutes (me still panting from the mad dash not to miss it), the roadworks which dropped us all off 3 stops early and the rain, it was not a terrible journey. However, even without the delays it would have been a good 45 minutes just to get there.

Once I did get to St Luke’s it was worth it. This is a church with its own infamy: lead by an Anglican-convert who rose to prominence as part of the alternative movement, strong links to Greenbelt festival, and the guy sitting behind me I had been listening to in a podcast on my way to the service. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, but it was a more than pleasant surprise.

The service itself was very Anglican in structure with liturgy, the obligatory children’s spot and a hymn or two. What made it more special were the little things: listening to Love is the Key by Tuck & Patti on the PA system, the minutes that ticked by in silence as we were told to think of people in our prayers, the piano solo which filled the church space better than any unending chorus on guitars and drums than I’d heard in a while.

The only downside was a Peace that hit 7 on the palm-sweat scale; palpable once the service was over. Had I not known 2 people there already and said hi, I’m not sure anyone would have approached me to give the ol’ Anglican welcome. This is not always a bad thing of course, coercion onto the electoral roll and guilty feelings every Sunday missed being just a few of the less enjoyable parts of Anglicanism; apparently something St Luke’s does not indulge in. That said, Dave kindly gave me more than a few minutes of his time and conversation, which cheered me up no end.

One of the congregants commutes to St Luke’s from Canterbury. Canterbury! And I thought South Lambeth was a stretch. He makes a round-trip of over 120 miles every week, sometimes more often, because the values of the church are that important to him.

I travel to St Luke’s because the high speed link from Canterbury or Ashford gets me to St Pancras from the latter in 37 minutes.  A short tube ride to Caledonia Road then a short walk lands me on Penn Road.  I go because at the beginning of November I heard Justin, their choir master and organist give a stunning presentation at a Gay and Lesbian Christian group on church worship.  The best I had heard in 30 years and wondered what church in the world allows a man like him to flourish and do what he does.  The following day I went to St Luke’s to find out.

On my first day a man called Dan bothered to converse with me and I learned much about the church.  I met Sam the gardener and we talked about the gardens of the church grounds.  I discovered they were rehearsing the Messiah as a community choir and wanted to participate. I thanked God from the depths of my heart that the church used technology to enable worship and not dominate it.  So many modern churches are slaves to the worship group and performance, idolising a narrow form of music which must bore the pants off the Almighty.  At St Luke’s His people have to put some effort into their praise in its thought, diversity, availability for those who want to embrace it and its authenticity.   Justin gives 100%, encourages 100% with such grace and energy, the former attribute I lack in abundance.

St Luke’s has a heart to serve and I was fascinated by their participation in the 7 churches’ provision of shelter for the homeless between January and March.  Alternate Saturdays I make the journey to do a night and morning duty to assist.  Partly to give, partly to learn and wonder if from these lessons I could bring something back to Canterbury.  Middle class Evangelical Christians do not live in Canterbury to serve the homeless and poor.

I commute to St Luke’s because under David’s leadership he promotes a dynamic sense of community with permission to travel.  Acceptance for a huge range of activity in a loving non judgemental atmosphere is worth every minute of the commuting journey.  You only have to attend a typical  middle class church in Britain to understand the antithesis of this.

In his excellent sermon on love – and inspired by the book How to be a Bad BirdwatcherDave Tomlinson talked affectionately of the parish community, mentioning by name someone known to many people sitting there. Not me, of course. But then, as a church commuter how could I?

Is it possible to commute to a community? Or is there a point where you have to make your home the place where you also do your living?