St Giles, Camberwell
a 'high' church - it's worship is Anglo-Catholic with that almost 'theatrical'
symbolism, awe and mystery which other worship traditions somehow seem to lack;
it's a lofty church, high vaulted ceilings, a magnificent three-quarter length
east window and it has possibly the highest spire in south London and can be
seen for miles in any direction!
large, and interesting parish, with many contrasts - and the church itself,
it's past and present, is a reflection of its surroundings. Camberwell was once
a very 'fashionable' place to live. Big houses and a big impressive church to
match. But fashions change and for many years Camberwell has been largely a
working class community - council estates and the big houses turned into flats.
Only a few years ago the parish was 19th in the UPA deprivation list, with
around half of its 15,000 population living below deprivation levels.
Church also suffered - a grade 2 listed building, it was consecrated in
November 1844 replacing an earlier parish church which had been destroyed by
fire. (There has been a church on the site since Saxon times and
it was mentioned in the Domesday Book). The Victorian St Giles was clearly a wealthy,
well-supported church reflecting prosperous Camberwell. But the twentieth
century mainly saw neglect, caused by lack of money and falling
Vicar, Canon Rodney Bomford came to the parish 23 years ago - and while he
would never admit it, has clearly turned its fortunes around, by a combination
of spiritual and commercial acumen. He's undoubtedly an accomplished theologian
- with books to prove it - but a few minutes listening to him also suggests
that the nearby Greenwich Dome could do with his management skills!
years have seen many changes in Camberwell itself - signs of 'gentrification'
with many bigger houses going back to one-family occupation, new homes being
built, some costing upwards of half a million but with still some of the
poorest estates in London (50% of housing is in Council flats). It's a mobile
population with a very high turnover among both the rich and poor. The church
has reacted to that change. Worship at St Giles is formal but inclusive,
accessible to even the most erratic worshipper.
came here the parish was a model of a close, almost closed, community" said
Rodney. "Worship was fairly 'high' but quite congregational - difficult for an
outsider or occasional visitor to break into. We have tried to remove the
'thresholds' - the Mass is a public act, not a club activity. We have a minimum
emphasis on membership and aim to be a church for the whole community, those
who come occasionally as much as the regular worshipper."
is the focus for worship with just two services on Sunday - a low Mass at 8am
and a Parish Mass at 10am. Non-Eucharistic Sunday services don't happen -
unless there is no priest available, and that's unusual. In its heyday St
Giles' had up to seven Curates - but even today, in addition to Canon Bomford,
there are two stipendiary curates, Stephen Sichel who is Curate in charge of
the second church in the parish, St Matthew's, and Timothy Foreman, ordained as
a Deacon last year; there are also two NSMs - Roger Smith, a teacher who also
'helps out' at the Millennium Dome, and Harry Potter, a barrister who recently
moved out to Eltham and divides his time between St Giles and his new local
parishes; and looking ahead there is one OLM in training Pat Alden with a
second, Isoline Russell, due to start training this year.
congregation is very diverse - "People come from a variety of traditions and
backgrounds" said Rodney. "We have ex-Roman Catholics and an 86 year old
lifelong Baptist (now on the PCC). We have people born and bred locally, those
who came thirty years from the Caribbean and more recent arrivals from Nigeria,
the Seychelles and a flourishing group from and a flourishing group from Sierra
Leone for example. Our worship needs to be accessible to people who may still
be struggling with the English language; it needs to involve but not demand -
the Mass with its formality and structure, inbuilt awe and mysticism meets that
need. So-called 'modern' colloquial language worship would not
are two Sunday school groups with up to forty children each week in two age
groups - they meet during the 10am service, returning for the Communion. St
Giles's have practised Communion before Confirmation since the 1970s - one of
the first 'pilot parishes'. There is also a Mass on Wednesdays - a daily Mass
wasn't supported and Evening Prayer is said most evenings. Masses are also said
in local hostels and residential homes for the elderly.
Contrasting with the formality of the mass there is a growing meditation group,
which meets every Saturday evening for half an hour or so, and more recently a
10 minute slot for silent contemplative prayer has been introduced into the
Parish Mass about once every six weeks.
Giles's engagement with the community is part of being the church for everyone.
Forty years or so ago the parish set up the St Giles Trust which now has some
40 full time staff working with homeless people. In its early years the
Camberwell Arts Festival was focused on the church. In both cases the church no
longer has any formal link but is still very involved. And of course, St Giles
was the inspiration and is still the base for the Camberwell Choir School,
which began when a choirmaster was looking for singers, saw the success of the
Greek Orthodox Saturday schools and tried it out in Camberwell. Now more than
100 children attend its weekly sessions.
choir school isn't just about learning to sing or play - it is a way of getting
the Christian faith under children's skins!" said Rodney.
second factor in the community engagement is money! It's not a rich
congregation and 'direct giving' just about meets the parish's Fairer Shares
quota - around £20,000 a year. "Finance would be impossible without our
commercial income" said Canon Bomford. The crypt has a pub and entertainment
licence with a Friday night Jazz Club and private functions on Saturday nights.
Rodney Bomford and a former churchwarden are the licensees and the church gets
the bar profits. The Church Hall and the St Giles Centre opposite the church
are both profitable 'enterprises' - the latter has a number of ex-curates'
flats, meeting rooms and offices. Rents and charges are pitched at a level
which makes them attractive to users, but at the same time a valuable income to
result the parish has been able to begin to reverse a century of neglect. Over
a ten year period around £2 million is being spent on the church building
and the money from the 'business' activities not only meets day-to-day
maintenance and small improvements but also provides the 'self-help' element
which many grant-making bodies demand. The spire, which was probably faulty
when it was first constructed, has had the top 70 ft taken down and rebuilt.
That has cost about £1.1 million - mainly funded by grants from English
Heritage and the Lottery. The church is being floodlit, thanks to Southwark
Borough Council and the next stage is to rewire and renovate the interior, and
restore the organ. The restoration work and tapping into funding sources is
handled by a 'Friends' committee - one of several groups who meet after Mass on
Sundays to organise the work and witness of the church. They tend to go for big
one-off fund raisers, events like an Opera in the church which raised over
£5,000. It keeps the 'fund-raising' separate from the church's main
Nowadays for a priest to stay in one parish 23 years seems unusual. But Rodney
Bomford is all for it! "It takes at least five years to decide and make the
changes you feel necessary, and possibly another ten before the changes really
take effect. A rapid turnover of clergy means lots of hurried changes every
five years or so - and that isn't good for the parish"
clearly has no plans to move. He's looking ahead to the possibilities of new
worship centres on the estates and an increase in work in the parish's
residential homes, especially once the OLMs are fully functioning.
is a parish of contrasts - the wealthy side by side with the very poor... the
ex-Baptist worshipping with the ex-Roman Catholic... new homes and run-down
estates.. the public performance of the mass alongside the private, personal
meditation.. traditional south-east Londoners and the new people from Nigeria
and the Seychelles... all part of being a church without 'thresholds' a church
for the whole community of Camberwell.