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St Luke's North Peckham
OK, it was almost wholly a Caribbean and African congregation - and unlike most churches, the front pews filled up first. But the hymns were very traditional and the liturgy was ASB Rite A.
I was a few minutes late, but the service hadn't started, and no-one seemed to mind. There was a 'laid back' feeling - going to church was part of their everyday lives and there was none of the Sunday formality that often dogs our services. People continued to drift in up to thirty or forty minutes after the start and from the smiles and waves as they did, there was obviously a 'family' feeling about the place.
Externally it isn't the loveliest of buildings, almost fortress like with sheer brick walls and currently surrounded by the trademrks of a building site, metal fencing...bare earth and rubble. But inside is a different story - and although it could do with a coat of paint here and there - it is both attactive and functional with plain walls and simple wooden chairs providing a contrast to the beautiful tradtional altar and reredos.
Jim had prepared me for one thing. As one of only six or so white people in a congregation of about 90, I would have a sense of how black people must have felt when they first walked into the average English church.
But any apprehension I might have felt soon disappeared, with the warmth of the welcome, particularly during the peace when it seemed that one after another the whole congregation sought me out to shake hands. Perhaps if all our churches had been so welcoming a few years back, the black community wouldn't have felt it so necessary to set up their own churches!
St Luke's Camberwell - or to be more accurate, North Peckham - is at the centre of the biggest single redevelopment in Europe. Around £250 millions are being spent on putting right some of the mistakes of the post-war period. The huge tower blocks, linked by walkways had become a breeding ground for crime, - drugs, muggings and theft - which with unemployment and poor housing made the five huge estates, which make up St Luke's parish, notorious. Postmen and milkmen wouldn't deliver and everywhere there was a sense of hopelessness.
In 1994 the Peckham Partnership was formed - a consortium of the local council (Southwark), the private sector (housing associations and business) and community representatives.
The Partnership drew up radical plans for the area - the five estates plus Peckham Town Centre - the aim being to bring jobs, leisure and a better education service into the area and most importantly to replace the run down pre-war and 1960s housing blocks with low-rise homes, mostly houses, with gardens. Most of the housing is being built by housing associations, including the Southwark and London Diocesan HA, with about 10% private homes and the rest local authority. Jim Jelley, who became a member of the Partnership board, representing the local churches, when he came to St Luke's two and a half years ago, said "The redevelopment has made an enormous difference to the profile of the area. When the decanting started of the first tenants, so their homes could be pulled down, almost everyone wanted out of the area. The Partnership has two roles, one is redevelopment and the other rebuilding the community.
"Gradually as the work has progressed and conditions improved more and more residents are opting to stay, moving within the area. Now the whole place is starting to look and feel safer and more human-scale. Now, many who didn't want to stay, now want to come back".
"We were the most deprived area in the diocese - I wonder if we are now. Our Oxlip level of around 53% reflected the type of housing, which has now changed, and the high unemployment levels (which are getting better, albeit mainly casual and part-time work)" said Jim.
Many of the parishioners who moved out of the area have retained their link to St Luke's - coming from Nunhead, Walworth and further afield regularly. Most of the congregation are black - African and Afro-Caribbean stock, but with a fair number born in the UK. Many of the congregation had come to St Luke's from other backgrounds, Catholic, Baptist and Pentecostal. "Like a lot of inner city UPA parishes we depend on the black population" said Jim.
It's a mainly young congregation - there are few over 65 - with many young families. The Sunday School is strong with over 20 children most weeks and there is an active youth group of ten or so which Jim helps to run - during black history month they did a sermon 'slot' and on Palm Sunday they are due to do a dramatic reading of the Passion.
Jim works alone - no curate, Reader or SPA - but there is a great deal of lay involvement in worship and the church's community activity.
"For example, my predecessor, Andrew Davey started the system of having a 'Deacon for the Day' at our Eucharist - he or she robes, announces hymns, sets up the altar and administers the chalice" said Jim.
On the Sunday I was at St Luke's, the Deacon was Daisybelle James - who also described herself as "churchwarden, tea maker and almost anything else".
Lay people also read, serve, welcome and lead intercessions - and the worship often includes the Lord's Prayer in the different languages of the congregation. Last Lent they have introduced a new form of intercessions. It began with five minutes of silent prayer during which people were invited to light a candle or go to the 'intercessor for the day' and write out a prayer for her to read. Or they could go to the altar rail where Jim and the deacon for the day would lay hands on the individual and pray with them.
There was a steady stream of people lighting candles and going to the altar rail - and when the intercessor came to the lectern many of her prayers were clearly heartfelt by the writers, including one person's thanks for a new job, and others' prayers for 'peace of mind' and for friends and family 'at home'.
There is also a choir group. We were all grateful to them and Jim's strong baritone voice on Sunday 21 March, because the organist couldn't be there!
There is also a strong prayer and bible study group. "Within the congregation there is a very deep spirituality. Prayer is central to everything we do. I firmly believe that if we pray, all other things will come and it is very clear that people do pray and read their Bibles every day" said Jim.
The church is also a focus for 'social life'. Over the late May Bank Holiday around 50 or so adults and children are off to Butlins' Southcoast World for a parish holiday together.
The church is very active in the community with many of its members heavily involved in community life. "There is no doubt that the regeneration is making a major change - it is very exciting and there have been some very positive reactions. There have also been criticisms about lack of communication and consultation," said Jim. "Residents complain about the plaster board walls - you can hear everything your neighbour says and does - and the size of the rooms."
Eileen Adams is a local tenant 'activist'. "One of the problems is that Partnership and especially Soptuhwark Council officials don't always listen to what we say" she told me.
" We have told them, the rooms in the new places are too small and the walls are paper-thin, but they ignore us. And many tenants have been forced to move out of three-bedroom into two bedroom houses because their children are under a certain age - if they refuse the only choice is to move away. That's not fair and it isn't keeping the community together. I thought that's what they wanted."
Jim Jelley also added that there were problems with the Peckham Pulse. That's a major new leisure complex on the edge of the parish with services like a hydrotherapy pool targeted at local people.
"But a lot of locals say 'It's too expensive' and so they can't use it" Eileen and others have formed a residents'pressure group'. Already the partnership have agreed to go round the development with them looking at different types of housing and listening to criticisms.
And on 16 March their voices were loud and clear at a meeting in St Luke's new church hall when the community development proposals were being discussed - the Partnership has 'seed-funding' available for community projects.
But Jim can see major signs of change. The development has improved local education facilities with an Early Learning Centre , which Jim visits regularly. He is also getting increasingly involved in the local state primary school.
St Luke's itself has benefited from the regeneration. Jim has just moved into a new vicarage - at the end of one of the new terraces of housing. There is a splendid new church hall which has attracted back the local Cub Scouts group and is used by fthree black-led Pentecostal churches regularly for worship. "One of them is planning a 5 morning a week Bible school there" said Jim.
"It is a very exciting area to work in" said Jim. "There is a tremendous spirituality and sense of family in the congregation."