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Issue 07

Time and Place and Eating Together:
St Nicholas Church, Thames Ditton

David Parish

David Parish is an Associate Fellow of the KLC, a former airline senior executive and a member of St Nicholas.

Photo by David Parish

It is late 1179 and the June evening shadows are lengthening but still there is the steady swish, swish of scythes as lay workers from Merton Priory cut the wheat and stack the sheaves. There is also the low sound of men’s voices: they sing in rhythm to their work and in turn the speed of the song sets the pace of the work. There is a sense of relief as the chapel bell rings for evening prayer and they join the small group of monks who maintain the chapel.

The western light flows through to the chancel as the monks chant the compline service and sing the psalms. Darkness deepens but there is a sense that this is a time and place where God is present.

The year is now 1547 and England has been through the turmoil of the Reformation. Merton Priory is in ruins, felled by Thomas Cromwell’s team of “underminers” who blow out the foundation, leaving only a few walls. Merton College in Oxford is the sole permanent record of the wealth and power of the Augustinian priors.

St Nicholas is now on the lands of the Imber Court lords; the living passes to their control and the church becomes protestant in outlook, except for the “doom paintings” – a series of panels depicting the day of judgement, when the righteous and wrongdoers receive the rewards of heaven or hell. Preaching is from the Geneva Bible, newly printed in London. The rewards of the harvest are shared among the labourers and the Lord of the Manor who, of course, gets the larger share. The village of Thames Ditton expands, becoming a settlement and the people earn a living from farming and fishing. The church grows, expanding from the narrow Norman field chapel into a substantial place of worship.

The year is now 1870 and the railway has come to Thames Ditton from a new terminus at Waterloo on the southern edge of London, close to the open lands of Clapham Common. Thames Ditton, now a desirable place to live for wealthy merchants who build mansions near the village, attracts the new clerical class who work in the banks and businesses of central London. All give generously to the church and it grows again in size. Wheat and barley are still grown, providing bread and beer for a London about to quadruple in size in forty years.

The year is now 2023. St Nicholas is still at the centre of the village but the homes of the wealthy are now apartments or care homes and Imber Court is now a health club. Fields are full of houses and the voices and sounds of harvest are ghostly shadows. The “doom paintings” remain to remind church members, and the numerous visitors who call in to see the wonderful architecture, that God will one day judge the world. The Geneva Bible is still in the care of the church but preaching is from the NIV or ESV. Food, though, remains central to the life and mission of the church. Every week there is a community café serving home-baked cake and coffee from a full-scale barista-style coffee machine. There is a monthly hot meal, but during this cold winter it was weekly. There is also a food bank run in conjunction with the main one in Elmbridge.

The other constants through the centuries are that the word of God has been preached and sung praise has been offered to the God who is faithful, providing both spiritual and physical bread for the needy in spirit and body.