Historical and liturgical context

Reverend Canon Nicholas Cranfield FSA, DPhil, PhD


The Church in England

The Church in England dates back several centuries before Pope Gregory the Great sent Augustine with forty monks from Rome (597AD) to England as part of his pan-Continental mission to re-propagate Christianity after the collapse of the Roman Empire. Three bishops from England attended a church Council at Arles in 314AD.

One of Augustine’s first successors as Archbishop of Canterbury, Theodore from Tarsus in Cilicia (668 – 690), reformed the English church after conducting a survey of the church establishing a geographical division of the country into Dioceses each with a bishop and parishes in which a priest exercised authority and a pastoral charge on behalf of his bishop.

To this day the Church of England is provided for within set boundaries. Blackheath lay within the parish of St Mary Lewisham until the nineteenth century when an expanding population and a shift away from an essentially agrarian economy in NW Kent led to the creation of new ecclesiastical districts or parishes. Our parish was constituted in 1857 and the church first opened for worship in 1858.


The Church of England

Social change and radical anti-establishment proselytising swept across sixteenth century Europe in the wake of the invention of printing which encouraged the widespread dissemination of learning and an increase in literacy. The demand for the reformation of the Western church (which had been split from Eastern Orthodoxy in 1054AD) had continued for three centuries before Martin Luther and other voices across Germany and central Europe (1517) confronted papal authority and the structures of the Church.

Following the Sack of Rome (1527) by the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry VIII (1509-47) became emboldened to reject the papal claims of Rome over the church in England. A succession of Parliamentary Acts in the 1530s, many introduced by Thomas Cromwell (of Wolf Hall infamy), effected a thoroughgoing change to daily life in England as saints’ days, praying for the dead, pilgrimages and other pieties were abolished. A Bible in English was to be made available in every church and later all the monastic houses which had provided for the health and welfare of communities across the land were suppressed, their lands and revenues falling to the king.

Henry remained a Catholic until his death. In 1521 the Pope had granted him the title of ‘Defender of the Faith’ (Fidei Defensor) for his traditionalist defence of the seven sacraments, a title still held by our sovereign and appearing on all coinage still as ‘F.D.’ or ‘Fid. Def.

When his young son Edward became king under the thrall of Protestants at court, a new Prayer Book in English was introduced to replace the Latin Missals and psalters. The 1549 and 1552 Prayer books were abolished by his successor, his half-sister the Catholic Queen Mary and her husband King Philip, of Spain.

At Elizabeth’s accession (1558), surviving Catholic bishops were side-lined or removed and her forty-five year reign was a period marked by diplomatic isolation from the rest of Europe after the Pope placed England under the Interdict (1570), depriving all Christians of the sacramental assurance offered by the Church.

The so-called ‘Elizabethan Settlement’, by which the Church of England is governed by a Supreme Head (the sovereign) under Parliamentary Law, is maintained to this day as the Church of England has become the Established Church. Catholics were allowed Toleration of Worship in 1829.

Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer as revised in 1662 remains the official Liturgy of the Church of England (and is used for the daily offices in this church at Morning and Evening Prayer) and is used alongside Common Worship (2000) and other sanctioned liturgies. By Law every parish church must offer a service of Holy Communion each Sunday and on major holy days.


All Saints’, Blackheath

The parish church was built (1857 – 1867) on land owned by the Earl of Dartmouth by one of the pupils of the celebrated architect Augustus Pugin, Benjamin Ferrey (1810 – 1880) who worked mainly in the Gothic Revival style. It was originally planned to be two bays longer and to have its own churchyard. The south tower and steeple as well as the west porch and the choir vestry are later.

The decoration of the chancel walls (a small panel of which has been recently revealed) is contemporary with the building whereas the painted ceiling and roof beams are a later addition. The mosaics (1880s, from Venice) in the sanctuary depict the Baptism and Transfiguration of our Lord either side of the extended wooden holy table and, on the side walls, the holy Family, the Evangelists and the figures associated with the Visitation of the Virgin Mary and the Presentation of the Christ Child in the Temple. In the recessed sepulchre on the north side are the angels at the empty tomb.

The original font was moved from inside the west doors to its present position in 1917 and the font cover serves as a war memorial to one of our Fallen. The craftsmanship is of a piece with the aumbry holding the Blessed Sacrament in the north wall of the Lady Chapel and the 1911 altar placed there. The chancel screen dates to 1920 and is the memorial for those who fought in the Great War, 1914-1918. The east window (1947), replacing one destroyed by German bomb blast damage, is the memorial for those who fell in the Second World War. The icon of Our Lady Hodegetaria in the Lady Chapel was given to honour all prisoners of conscience and those around the font were given in 2007/8 to honour our sesquicentenary. The painted Calvary (Golgotha 2004) is by the artist Paul Lisak.



In common with the churches of the Latin West, The Church of England recognises seven sacraments as outward signs of an inward and an invisible grace. Those of Baptism and of Holy Communion (The Mass, The Liturgy, The Lord’s Supper, The Eucharist) are regarded as pre-eminent as being commanded by our Lord and by his example. The sacrament of Confession, or counsel was also retained at the Reformation. The other sacraments are those of Confirmation, Marriage, Ordination and Holy Unction (Anointing).



Sometimes called Christening (from Christianising), this is a Rite of Initiation by which a person becomes a Christian. In many traditions only those who have been baptised can attend the Liturgies of the Church and it was anciently the duty of the deacons to ensure that all non-believers left the building before the Holy Mysteries of Communion were celebrated. Priests have the right to baptise in the absence of a bishop and lay people who are themselves Christian may baptise others in extremis when no ordained minister is present.

The early Church, as evidenced in the pages of the Acts of the Apostles (for instance, Acts, chapter 8, verses 26 – 28), undertook baptism by water, following the example of the Lord’s own baptism at the hands of John the Baptist (Mark, chapter 1, verses 1- 11) and it is practised across the Church as the only rite of initiation.

Where an infant is to be baptised it is in the expectation that once they reach the age of discretion they will be brought forward to be confirmed at the hands of a bishop.

In the Anglican tradition Confirmation is understood to ‘confirm’ the gift of the Holy Spirit that was conferred at Baptism by the pouring of water three times over the baptizand, in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Those being baptised under the age of seven and therefore deemed not too answer for themselves are expected to have godparents who will speak for them; each child must have at least one godfather and one godmother who must themselves be baptised Trinitarian Christians from any denomination. Until the 1980s the Church of England required godparents to have been confirmed or to be adult members of their respective churches but this is now a desideratum and not formally demanded.

Those to be baptised are first exorcised and anointed before being brought to the font. At All Saints’ baptism is usually administered at the Parish Mass on the Major feasts (Easter, Pentecost, Epiphany and the Baptism of our Lord) and on the first Sunday of every month except during Lent and Advent, the seasons of preparation before Easter and Christmass. Those bringing children or babies to be baptised will be expected to attend a preparation class in advance. Adults coming to be baptised will be confirmed at the same service by the Bishop. Only those who have been confirmed by a bishop are admitted to communion.


Holy Communion (The Mass, The Eucharist, The Liturgy, The Lord’s Supper)

Following the injunction of our Lord’s own teaching (Luke chapter 22, verses 7 – 23 and related Gospel passages) St Paul taught (I Corinthians chapter 11, verses 23 – 26), the memorial of the Last Supper as a solemn meal that prefigures the heavenly banquet. Drawing on the Jewish tradition of a Passover meal in which gifts of bread and wine are among those offered and sanctified, Christians believe that Jesus, on the night before he died, identified himself with the gifts of the broken bread and wine outpoured that they might become for us the Body and Blood of our Lord.

Anglicans do not formally accept the teaching of the Real Presence in Transubstantiation in which the very essence of the bread and wine is changed but adhere to a Reformed tradition of Consubstantiation which proposes that the substance of the Body and Blood of Christ are present alongside the substance of the bread and the wine. 

The example of the first followers of Jesus (Acts chapter 2, verses 46 and 47) should encourage to make receiving communion part of our life of witness to God. It is traditional not to eat before making one’s communion for at least an hour and not to consume alcohol for three hours before although many fast before making their communion.

In the Church of England all who come to receive are expected to receive ‘in both kinds’ (both the bread and the wine). If you require a gluten-free wafer please advise the sidespeople before Mass. You are encouraged to kneel in the presence of the Lord to receive and to remain kneeling until the person after you has also received communion. Those who have not been confirmed are invited to come forward to receive a blessing if they wish.


Confession (Penance)

Many still seek the counsel of the Church which is offered in total confidence. A priest may withhold absolution after confession if the penitent refuses to undertake the prescribed penance (such as reporting themselves to the police or making restitution of goods etc). It is traditional to make one’s confession before the major feasts in the Calendar. Before Lent ‘Shrove’ Tuesday’s name comes from being ‘shrived’ after confession. The sacrament of confession can be arranged at any time with a priest.