When Father Christopher Pearson and some of his flock at St. Agnes Church in Kennington, South London, made the decision to come into full communion with the Catholic Church, they had to leave quite a lot behind. A church they loved, with its own particular story—destroyed by bombing in World War II and then rebuilt—and a comfortable role in the local community. The congregation and its networks of friends had a strong sense of belonging. No Remembrance Sunday was complete without Father Christopher in cope and cassock arriving the take the traditional service at the local War Memorial. The church’s annual round of celebrations and processions was well known and appreciated locally.
Leaving all of this was not easy—but the call of Peter was not one that they felt, in conscience, could be resisted. When Benedict XVI issued the invitation, in Anglicanorum Coetibus, to “groups of Anglicans” to join the Catholic Church, Father Christopher invited members of his flock to join him on Sunday following the main service, to pray and ponder.
The result was a decision to follow Peter—which meant, in effect, leaving everything that had become comfortable and venturing ahead in faith. Father Christopher became a Catholic layman—entering the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham carried no guarantee of ordination, but only meant that he could submit an application and apply for training and ordination. The “South London Ordinariate group”—as he and his flock became known—met each Sunday at a local Catholic church for Mass, and during the week for instruction. Good humour and a sense of sharing this whole venture together meant that they simply took things stage by stage.
But things were a bit bleak, though none of them mentioned it, as there was no point in doing so. Father Christopher left a large comfortable vicarage and an assured way of life. There were friends and colleagues who voiced disapproval or, worse, who remained silent but deliberately avoided contact. And the future was by no means crystal-clear.
Things worked out. The group was received into full communion with the Catholic Church at Easter 2011 and Father Christopher was ordained that June. But it was more than a year later that he was appointed to the Church of the Most Precious Blood at London Bridge, and parish life could begin again.
The church—a fine building, listed as being of historic interest—stands near the famous Borough Market near the Thames. Built in the 19th century, initially for a largely Irish congregation, it was facing an uncertain future. Weekday Masses were held in the sacristy as numbers were small. The church was grubby, the heating system inadequate. The choir-loft was filled with odds and ends: broken furniture, stacked papers, old hymn books, and a statue facing bleakly to the wall.
Rummaging about, Father Christopher came to the statue, and with difficulty turned it round. It was of St. Agnes, the patroness of his former Anglican community. A lamb clasped in her arms, she stood erect with her long hair flowing, and her face turned slightly upwards in a gesture of faith.
A quiet sign that somehow said “Welcome home.” And the story goes on from there…a fully renovated church, a large, thriving, and steadily growing congregation, a children’s choir singing both English and Latin Mass settings, a busy and popular Sunday School, and more. On July 1, the traditional Feast of the Most Precious Blood, the archbishop of Southwark will formally consecrate the church—among Father Christopher’s discoveries was the fact that this had never been carried out—launching a summer of celebrations.
The renovations include a new marble floor and a new font, an exact replica of the original one that was removed some years ago. The marble floor is in grey and red, the latter honouring Christ’s blood. The sanctuary with its notable baldachino has been completely cleaned and the baldachino freshly repainted. A new heating system—one of the first items to be installed—lies beneath the gleaming new floor. The sacristy with its Victorian panelling and unusual “lantern” window has been restored to its original use and holds an array of good vestments.
Weekday Masses, restored to their place in church, are well-attended, as the church stands just across the river from the City of London with its teeming crowds of office-workers. The main Sunday Mass is full, and new pews—matching the original ones, which have been cleaned and restored—have been added. The choir-loft has been cleared and fitted with proper choir stalls and the children’s choir, led by choirmaster Christopher Smith, sings from there every Sunday. They sing English Mass settings by Merbecke, and well-known Latin ones including Credo III, attending a choir practice every Thursday before Evensong.
While the renovation work was going on Father Christopher and the parish used the night-club opposite the church for Sunday morning Mass. “We’re very grateful to them—and somehow it has all been part of the whole adventure, squashing in to the biggest room they could offer, and bringing over candlesticks and so on from the church,” said Father Christopher. “And they’ve continued to be extremely helpful—we can use the place for coffee after Mass and other gatherings as required”.
The cleaning and painting of the church—and, in particular, the laying of a new floor—brought clouds of dust, and willing relays of parishioners helped to vacuum and wipe over the weeks.
All of this has cost a great deal of money. Funding has come from parishioners and well-wishers, in response to appeals. Donations have been given in memory of family and friends. Outdoor floodlighting has been provided by the local authority in recognition of the building’s historic status.
And St. Agnes, now freshly cleaned and repainted, wearing her red robe of martyrdom, stands by the entrance, with a candle-stand nearby where votive lights quietly flicker.
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