When the BBC transmission goes live at 11.40pm on Christmas Eve, Croydon Minster will be in the national spotlight.
The cameras will pan round the magnificent building showing Sir George Gilbert Scott’s design and build in its best light.
The 60-strong choir will begin to sing the Antiphon, Dominus Dixit, and their soaring voices will fill the Minster with glorious music.
Millions of people watching on television, both in this country and abroad, will be tuning in for a service of Midnight Mass. There will be familiar carols, the sounds of the Minster organ and the words of the liturgy. This will be an occasion when the secrets of the majestic architecture and the superb music of Croydon’s hidden gem will be revealed.
Croydon Minster, or Croydon Parish Church as it was then, suffered its own “Notre Dame moment” on a freezing January night in 1867, when a terrible fire burnt down most of the building, with the roof catching alight and crashing down, destroying virtually everything inside.
The decision was taken to rebuild it, with Gilbert Scott, the renowned Victorian architect, to produce the design. Croydon folk played their part too with the magnificent Clayton and Bell stained glass window at the east end of the church being paid for entirely by public subscription.
For centuries, the church had been an important place of worship, being next to the Archbishop’s Palace, enjoying the patronage of the Archbishop of Canterbury as it still does today. Many of its clergy had been characters on the national historical stage.
Richard of Bury, a rector at the church in the 14th Century, was the personal tutor to Edward III and later served as Chancellor when Edward became king. Dr Rowland Phillips, who was the vicar of Croydon at the beginning of Henry VIII’s reign, was summoned to Lambeth Palace together with Thomas More for opposing the Oath of Succession to recognise Anne Boleyn as the legitimate queen. Phillips gave in and signed; More refused and… well, we know how that all ended for him.
Croydon Church was also important for its music, too, attracting many diverse talents. John Avery, one of the leading organ builders of the late 18th century, completed an instrument here in the 1790s which many said was one of his finest. Among the organists to play it was Felix Mendelssohn, the famous composer, who wrote in his diary on one of his visits to London that he “played the organ at the Croydon Church”. That instrument, situated at the west end of the church, was destroyed in the 1867 fire.
John Hullah Pyke was an organist at the church in the 1830s. He collaborated with a young London writer to compose the music to compliment the writer’s libretto. The musical was entitled The Village Cocquettes, and ran for a short while in London in 1836 and later in Edinburgh. That young writer was Charles Dickens.
Frederick Rowland Tims was the organist here from 1911 to 1918. After he left Croydon he was employed as a theatre organist, eventually being appointed at the Gaumont Cinema in the Haymarket playing for the silent films. One wonders how dramatically he accompanied the hymn singing!
Christmas Eve will not be the first time that broadcasts have been made from the church. Back in the 1930s when H Leslie Smith, an Old Whitgiftian, was organist, many radio broadcasts of services were heard on the Home Service. In the 1940s there was hymn singing for such programmes as Sunday Half Hour on the Light programme. Television’s Songs of Praise was transmitted from Croydon Parish Church in the 1980s.
The current musical director, Dr Ronny Krippner, has led the current musicians of the Minster on an exciting journey. The Choral Foundation now has more than 70 singers.
There are more than 40 young choristers, both boys and girls, continuing an Anglican musical tradition of many, many years. The high standards of church music achieved by the choir saw BBC Radio 3 broadcast a live service of Choral Evensong from Croydon in 2018. The choir have sung services in St Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey and Wells Cathedral. The choristers who attend Whitgift School have performed in many other venues, including The Ritz.
Rev Dr Andrew Bishop, the priest in charge of the Minster, has been in post since September 2018. He is at the opposite end of the historic timeline of Croydon priests to Elfsie, the first-named priest of Croydon in AD 960, who surely could never have thought that his church’s very special Christmas service would one day be transmitted around the world.
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