«GROWTH IN A PARISH SAINT LUKE ELTHAM PARK 1904—1940 J.C. Thewlis BA PHD Walter Rowley Herbert Tomkinson MA Walter Langridge MA Frederick Bacheldor ...»
The High-Church sacramental tradition of the parish continued to deepen —even more than his predecessors, Bacheldor was unashamedly a catholic Anglican. In 1936 Mr Cole presented the pulpit crucifix, as he had presented the processional cross ten years earlier. One particular enrichment was the high altar reredos. It was planned in 1937 as a Coronation Memorial, and the design that was approved had four riddell-posts and curtains on three sides. What was installed was rather different: two riddell-posts and a canopy. One suspects that, as with the chancel screen, the architect's views may have been over-ridden. As a piece of design it was rather a mistake.
Various other schemes for completing the church's interior were discussed:
a new boundary wall, two screens for the Lady Chapel, a narthex at the west end, a rood on top of the chancel screen, a wooden surround for the new aumbry in the Lady Chapel, a new organ, a better garden—and a vicarage.
None of them came to anything.
In particular, hopes for a vicarage were continually disappointed. First a plot of ground in Dunvegan Road became available: it was inspected and found to be unsuitable. Next, 61 Glenesk Road came on the market. The PCC got as far as making an offer of £1,400, but the vendor would not accept it. Then 44 Westmount Road became available once more, and once more the PCC rejected it: it subsequently became the Methodist manse... It was not until just after the war that 107 Westmount Road was bought; those of us who have lived in it will say it was worth waiting for. But Bacheldor had to follow the S.Luke's tradition of living in rented accommodation outside the parish, at 23 Westmount Road.
Most significant is how through the thirties the balance of power in the PCC shifted to people who lived in the parish. In the late twenties, top of the PCC poll was always Everard Hesketh, the industrial tycoon of Beachcroft in Court Road. Within not much more than a decade, top of the poll was Will Charie, a clerk in the financial section of Siemens and living in a terraced house at 159 Grangehill Road. These were two thoroughly faithful Christian men. Each of them exercised a deep influence on the life of their parish church. Will Charie in particular was an unswervingly loyal worshipper through six decades and nine incumbents. But they came from very different backgrounds and had very different gifts. They represent the difference between the old era and the new.
The years just before the war continued to be full of financial difficulties.
The Finance Committee in November 1936 set an appeal target of £2,100 for all the schemes listed above. It was all very well for architect Tolhurst to say that the church badly wanted colour in it. Very little money could be raised. Deficits of between £80 and £100 became a regular feature of PCC accounts. Matters came to a head in the spring of 1939 when the deaconess had to be given the sack, and the organist volunteered to have £25 knocked off his honorarium.
There was the usual problem of work with young people. There were tensions in the Athletics Association. Numbers on the electoral roll fell from 744 in 1931 to 568 in 1939. Easter communicants held steady, though Baptisms were down. At his last APCM, in April 1940, Bacheldor said that he hoped the appointment of his successor 'would bring a revival in the life of the parish'. It is easy to see these as the words of someone who felt he had failed.
WAR AGAIN Then came the Second World War. The Reverend Frederick Witcomb BD, Vicar from 1940 until 1948, was as zealous as Fr Tomkinson had been two decades earlier but he did not have the human material to work with. The effect the second war had on S.Luke's was the opposite to that of the first.
Then, people had come into the parish in droves: now they were going out.
Conscription, bomb damage and evacuation all took their toll.
The hall was requisitioned by the Home Guard from 1941 to 1944. The stained glass and the Children's Corner beneath it (to the Vicar's secret delight) suffered damage from enemy action in 1944. PCC meetings became even less interesting. Organisations operated on a much smaller scale. Baptisms rose, but Easter communicants fell. When 1945 came, the revival in church life was not nearly so marked as it had been in 1919.
THE QUESTION OF ENERGYFOR 30 years, S.Luke's had been a pioneer church facing obvious challenges. It was no-one's fault that after 1934 it was not the place it once had been.
The very clear practical aims had been achieved. Accepting that a different vision was needed was not easy.
There was almost bound to be a sense of and-climax. People were financially weary. Huge sums had been raised, first for the old hall, then for the church, then for the new hall, then for the south aisle. Said Churchwarden Neame in January 1926, 'The generosity of the congregation attending S.Luke's has been wonderful and I hope it will become proverbial.' But there was a limit to that generosity. Moreover, the big sums had come largely from imaginative outsiders. Where would S.Luke's have been, for instance, without Everard Hesketh?
Hesketh himself realised only too well how much people depended on him.
For years he had been urging the congregation to stand on its own feet. That was why he had so eagerly advocated the Duplex envelope system. As we saw, it never caught on. In 1929 less than a quarter of the people on the electoral roll were subscribers, and of that quarter less than a third gave more than a shilling a week.
The people coming into the parish in the thirties might have been a little better off than the hut dwellers they were replacing. But they were not wealthy. Very often they were buying their first homes and did not have much cash to spare: that had not been the case quite so much back in 1904.
These were certainly not people who could replace the rich established outsiders who in the recent past had given so much to S.Luke's.
THE QUESTION OF APPEALNext, there was the question of what money should actually be raised for.
Building a church and two halls had some clear point. Buying a vicarage or putting in a couple of ornamental screens did not. S.Luke's life had revolved round clear issues of bricks and mortar. Once the buildings were complete, people did not quite know what to do. It is no wonder that enthusiasm was harder to find in the thirties.
At the same time, the huts disappeared. In their way they had been as important a goal as the building projects. Unmade roads, crowding, some problem families: all that appealed to a great many worthy people both inside and outside the parish who wanted to be practical Christians. S.Luke's was a place where things were done. Once the huts had gone, one suspects that much of the appeal, even the romance, went too.
It is clear that there was less and less reason for local people to see S.Luke's as the up-and-coming parish that deserved support. For the first time since 1904, the actual inhabitants were now the ones who would have to direct the parish's life.
QUESTIONS OF COMMITMENTThe decline in church attendance raises questions about commitment from within the parish too. Church attendance from 1904 to 1940 was never a simple reflection of how hard the clergy were working. If it had been, numbers would have been at their peak in 1917 when the staff was at its most numerous. Admittedly, it looks as though clergy visiting was the crucial factor in getting children and adults baptised. And it is likely that the immense army of monitors, teachers and visitors provided a network that chased up absent and errant children. But building up the numbers of worshipping adults was a much more subtle business.
Personalities had a large part to play. People had respected and loved Rowley. Tomkinson had a different sort of popularity, and certainly curates like Dodds and Brown had immense personal followings. Without Gobbitt's energy the Sunday School would never have expanded in the way it did. It looks as though things 'came together' in the early twenties. Langridge and his colleagues were no less faithful, but they do not appear to have had the same charisma and they did not have the same success.
God's ways with the soul are mysterious, and only He can judge spiritual depth. But we should be foolish not to wonder whether greater numbers really meant more committed Christians.
THE QUESTION OF YOUTHIf personalities weighed with the adults of the parish, this was doubly so with the youngsters. Before the First World War, Sunday School was an accepted part of respectable life. As long as the teaching methods of the state schools and the Church were not so very different, turning up for lessons on Sunday as well from Monday to Friday was for a reluctant child a bore rather than a chore. But with Avery Hill College so close, the standard of teaching in the two LCC schools in the parish was high and getting higher. By contrast Sunday School probably looked increasingly dreary. What might have been all right before the Great War was fast becoming out of date.
The Church was no longer the only source of entertainment and fellowship.
If the Church was going to hold its own with the young, the personality factor was going to be even more important. Dodds in particular had gifts in this direction, and Gobbitt was a highly successful superintendent of the Sunday School. They were not easily replaced.
QUESTIONS OF GEOGRAPHYEven though the clergy and church leaders put a lot of work into the huts and the Progress Estate, the backbone of the electoral roll remained stubbornly Corbett. It was not that the social classes were different. The church registers show that though there were three sorts of housing, there was broadly one sort of inhabitant. This picture is confirmed by the unpublished researches of Miss Margaret Evans and by personal reminiscences. The 'resistance' to becoming integral parts of S.Luke's congregation sprang from other causes.
The Progress Estate formed a unity of its own. Because it was built on land that Corbett had never owned, it was —and is— difficult to get from one estate to the other, except along Rochester Way and a single footpath on to Grangehill Road. The style of architecture set it apart from the older housing and also from the parish church. It was built for Arsenal workers, and its links were always strongly with Woolwich, and politically with the Labour Party there. Thanks to the tramway, indeed, it might even have been easier to shop in Woolwich than in Eltham.
Whatever the reason, S.Luke's never made quite the impact there that we might have expected. Experience with the Progress Estate shows that preaching the Gospel and receiving it is a far from straightforward business.
QUESTIONS OF INVOLVEMENTThe huts posed a different problem. They were hastily constructed on land that Corbett never got round to developing. Geographically they formed part of the old parish, but architecturally they emphatically did not.
The roads were not made up; the huts were temporary and not always well sited; they took a lot of careful maintenance to make them look substantial.
Couple this with the few problem families that any estate can provide, and it is easy to see how the inhabitants could view themselves as even less a part of the parish than the Progress Estate. One of the ex-missionaries who worked there during the Great War felt that there was such an inferiority complex that the huts really needed a separate church of their own.
Both here and elsewhere in the parish the S.Luke's Nurse was particularly important. As we have seen, the church's sponsorship ended in the middle twenties. The reasons were financial, but the results may have been more than financial. Perhaps it is coincidence, but one cannot help noticing that this is the moment when numbers at S.Luke's begin their slow decline.
Did people feel that they had to support the church if the church nurse was to support them? Did they drop their support for the church when she went independent? Or did they come to church because they felt the church cared? Did they fall away when they felt that the church cared no longer?
Or was the practical side of the Gospel more important to them that the spiritual? Perhaps they did not know themselves.
THE SPIRITUAL QUESTIONThe enrichment and embellishment of the church throughout this early period seems to have been patchy and even incoherent. It is almost as though there was no agreement on what the building should be saying to the worshippers. Focal points were lacking. Since the walls were intended to be so plain and dull, this was a serious defect. Even the war memorial is curiously low-key. Nothing of real substance was to appear between the installation of the screen in 1915 and the coronation reredos just before the Second World War. The two styles clashed even then!
There is only one area where, despite all difficulties, growth has been steady, constant and unspectacular: the parish's Eucharistic worship. Matins had become the main Anglican service within a few decades of the Reformation. Even in Tomkinson's time, weekday masses occasionally had to be cancelled because there was no congregation. (The custom of receiving the Blessed Sacrament fasting made for unnecessary complications, of course;
late-morning and early-evening masses were until very recently thought to be out of the question.) But in their various ways the clergy and laity of S.Luke's from 1904 until today have deepened and extended a solidly Eucharistic tradition. It is what holds us together and enriches us, and it is a tradition we should prize.
A DIFFERENT SORT OF PARISHThis has been the story of S.Luke's spectacular years. Settling down to what looked like a lower level of achievement had its problems. Expectations had been raised by the talented outsiders of our early history. The parishioners who were left could not in the end meet them. There was a lot of heartsearching and no doubt some feeling of guilt too, much of it misplaced.
Organisation, initiative, thinking broadly: these were gifts that became scarcer at S.Luke's from the thirties onwards. But in becoming more lowkey the church seems to have become friendlier. It seems also to have reflected more faithfully the strengths and weaknesses of the area that it serves. That is as it should be in a Church that is parish-based.
In the end, the history of any parish is less about spectacular achievement than about patience and faithfulness. The true Church is not the building but the Body of Christ. The life of that Body is expressed not in bricks and mortar but in crucifixion and resurrection. That truth has been clear throughout the history of our parish, and throughout all Christian history. By God's mercy we shall see it clearly in our own day as well.