St Stephen's Church, South Kensington

St Stephen’s Church on Kensington’s Gloucester Road was the first church I called at during last year’s trip to London. I usually find Victorian buildings a little tiresome in their exaggeratedly gothic designs. Being still fresh, however, I viewed St Stephen’s with a greater interest that if it had been at the end of my week. It is unashamedly Anglo-Catholic, meaning that it offers ritualistic worship and almost Roman-style devotion to hosts, vestments, saints and clergy. As someone who is decidedly ‘low’ in his churchmanship, I find the trimmings and accoutrements of high church worship somewhat alien. Nevertheless, at a time when pallid liberalism has all but chiselled away the heart of Anglicanism, I see high churchmen as fellow believers more than I used to. My visit to Suffolk’s Mendlesham persuaded me of this some years ago.


St Stephen’s first vicar was an evangelical, though the parish became more ritualistic as the Victorian era progressed. I wonder if there is an inbuilt inclination for churches to develop rituals and excessive symbolism. I know of a Congregational chapel in which a deacon bearing a lighted candle processes in front of the minister when he emerges from the vestry. I suspect that many folk who raise their arms in worship are actually performing a ritual.

We unwittingly (I hope) created an altar at Salem Chapel some weeks ago. The front lights were not working, and I gathered a couple of candlesticks from downstairs lest the illumination proved inadequate. Having left them on the front pew while I greeted worshippers, I returned to find that they had been placed each side of the communion table, the bread and wine in their midst. I quickly removed them before we began, lest a set of vestments appeared about my person and the little cups became a chalice.

As far as I can tell, only two rituals were required of the New Testament church, and they are baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Simply repeating something or engaging in ceremony is not wrong, but we must consider why we do it. Worship is to be honouring to God, but it must always point us to Him, and not to earthly routines or traditions.