Today we caught the tube across the city to Walthamstow to attend church in the parish where my friend Tony Cant ministers. Walthamstow, deep in the East end of London is a parish with four centres, and St. Luke's in the High street is one of them. Sort of. There is no real centre at St. Lukes if you make the mistake of thinking of church centres as buildings. There is a congregation, which meets in a house on Wednesday evenings for worship, instruction and Holy Communion. On Sundays they have a stall in the local farmers' market selling cheap but excellent fair trade coffee and cake. Tony manages the market and spends his Sunday morning helping people erect tents, minding the shop while stall holders nip out for a quick smoke, and making sure the whole thing runs smoothly. For an hour, while the market is running, a dozen or so people gather in a nearby cafe to read the Bible and eat a leisurely brunch and chat. It's church, Jim, but not as we know it. There is a public pastoral presence, an act of really useful ministry to the Walthamstow community and a visible witness to Christ which greatly exceeds that which might be expected if the dozen or so members of St. Lukes sat in an old gray stone building somewhere and sang hymns. They have some money to spend: the cash raised by selling their old church. They're thinking a community house might be nice. It's inspiring to see what a small congregation of ordinary folk can do if they take the fetters off.
We caught the bus back into the city. The front seat upstairs gives a grandstand view and the pace is leisurely enough to see what is going on. We prefer it to the tube where you pop down into the darkness, rattle and hum for a few minutes and pop up somewhere else with no real sense of how the beginning and the end of the journey are connected. One of the things we saw was the Kingsway International Christian centre, in Waltham Forest. It was about 1:30 pm and one congregation was leaving the church to make room for the next one to get in. Literally hundreds of people were slowly pressing either in or out of the building. I couldn't see any white faces. People were dressed in suits and ties and in brightly coloured East African garb.
In the evening we went to Holy Trinity Brompton. This famous church, the originator of the Alpha course is in Brompton Road, just down the street from Harrods in one of London's most exclusive suburbs. The church was pretty full for the 7:00 pm informal evening worship, the 7th service of the day. The two overwhelming impressions I had of the worship were of how well resourced the church is, and how LOUD it was. Everything in the church, sound system, audio visual set up, publications, seating, furnishings was of very good quality and was well maintained. The service began with the expected 25 minutes of rock music which dealt with the problem of congregational chit chit by simply playing over the top of it. Nicky Gumbell spoke briefly and introduced a group of people attending an international alpha conference who each spoke briefly of the great success of Alpha in their home country. One of the many clergy on the parish team gave a simple but well structured and intelligent address, and there was a period of prayer during which an altar call was made. Probably, if I was living in London and in search of a congregation to belong to, HTB would not be my first choice, but I'm awfully glad it's there and doing the things it does. The attendance figures for the Diocese of London have risen by about 25% over the past few years entirely because of Alpha. HTB has a policy of adopting and revitalising dying London churches by supplying them with the resources they need for growth: money, congregational members and leadership. The influence of Alpha and the missional programmes of HTB itself are having a huge impact on the international church. It would be hard to think of another single church which has had as great an effect on the world wide church as Holy Trinity Brompton. HTB can only do this work because it is large and, in every sense of the word, rich.
We travelled home in the twilight, watching from the top front of the bus as the pink sun made patterns on buildings old and new, knowing that the church in London is alive and well. In the economically hard pressed East End and in stylish Knightsbridge; in a congregation of 500 and one of 12 we had seen the Holy Spirit at work. At Walthamstow and Brompton people are seeing ministry flourish because they have offered themselves to God; particularly the bit he can really make something out of: their imaginations.