At the end of Mass, we sing the Angelus, and by tradition we turn to face the statue of Mary in the Lady Altar to the side of the chancel.
The Sunday School children know about this, and turn automatically, their young voices carolling out the responses along with the rest of us as the Rector begins “The Angel of the Lord brought tidings to Mary…”
But sometimes there is a newcomer among the children who doesn’t know the form, and stands facing forward. However, this is South London children and the problem is tackled wiftly: last week a boy who failed to make the appropriate move found the hand of his neighbour firmly on his head and a fierce whispered instruction: “ You ‘ave to turn your ‘ead and face ‘er”.
This is the Ordinariate parish at the Church of the Most Precious Blood at The Borough, London Bridge. A fascinating corner of London: on this bridge (well, all right, on the old bridge that stood there at the time) a major battle took place between the pagan Vikings and the Christian Saxons, with the latter’s victory securing the Christian future of the land. Near the bridge, years later, a Saxon convent was built and, later, the great church of St Mary Overie which stands there to this day and is now the Anglican cathedral for this area.
The Catholic Church of the Most Precious Blood was built in the 1890s, serving what was then a largely Irish congregation associated with the local hop industry. The hops – the central ingredient in beer – arrived by the trainload from the Kent hopfields, and to this day the Hop Exchange at London Bridge is a noted landmark, a fine building dominating that part of Southwark Street. The Church of the Precious Blood stands next to a great railway arch – the rumble of trains blends with the words of the liturgy and the singing at Mass, and on winter evenings the sudden flashes from the electric rails brings sudden splashes of light through the high windows.
When Pope Benedict XVI announced Anglicanorum Coetibus, inviting groups of Anglicans to come into full communion with Rome, bringing with them their traditions, their music, their patrimony, the parish of St Agnes at Kennington was quick to respond. And, after some weeks and months of homelessness and uncertainty, they were finally given this church at London Bridge – a parish where numbers were dwindling and a building which local gossip had said was destined for closure.
Since then, its been an exciting story: church cleaned up, sacristy renewed (and a fine old “lantern” ceiling discovered behind some modern tiles) new heating, the choir gallery restored to use, a shrine to Bl. John Henry Newman (patron of the Ordinariate) installed, a Sunday School started. There is a sense of continuity: the faithful priests and people who kept the parish going are the ones who made possible a welcome to the Ordinariate, and there is goodwill all round. Old parishioners and new fill the church in increasing numbers for Mass (an extra weekend Mass has had to be added recently) and the Parish Room in the Rectory is too small for the numbers that gather afterwards for freshly-brewed coffee. The ordinary Roman Rite is used for Mass, but there is an Ordinariate Form that is used occasionally, and every Thursday there is Evensong in the Anglican tradition.
The parish held its Annual Meeting the other day – another part of Anglican Patrimony is the system of parish governance, with churchwardens (complete with staves on formal occasions!) and a Governing Council. Anyone and everyone was welcome. Ideas and plans were discussed – the building has been listed by English Heritage as Grade II listed. There is a street-shrine to Our Lady by the main door which is popular with passers-by as well as parishioners, and it is hoped that this can be fully cleaned up and restored over the next year. Along with the main front of the church, it will also be floodlit.
The church is well-placed for processions, and there is a Marian one each May, and a Procession of the Blessed Sacrament in June. They go down along beneath the railway arch, and then up towards the Borough High Street with its busy shops and traffic. Each November, there is a gathering at the War memorial in the High Street for the Act of Remembrance – this was especially poignant in 2014, the anniversary of the outbreak of World War I.
But above all, there is a sense of mission. It’s all rooted in prayer. While numbers at Mass have grown, there is also a greater sense of depth in faith. People don’t talk loudly before Mass begins, or hurry away immediately after Communion. Recently-installed glass doors mean that the sanctuary, with its glowing lamp, is visible from the street and invites people to drop in to pray. There are plans for evangelisation and outreach, projects for the young and for teaching the Faith.
The Annual Meeting included a report with various practical details and ideas for discussion. It summed up what the venture is all about:
“The people of Most Precious Blood Parish are bringing new disciples to the knowledge and love of God, are being fed by Word and Sacrament so as to deepen their faith in Jesus Christ, and, guided by the Holy Spirit, are serving the community and are working for the unity of all Christians so that the world may believe.”