The London suburb of Balham (pronounced Bal-mmm) is a sort of national joke among British people of a certain age. This is because back in the late 1950s, comedian Peter Sellers produced a very funny recorded sketch entitled (in an American accent) "Bal-Hamm - Gateway to the South", which purported to be a travel program introducing tourists to the delights of this inner-city suburb, famous as a station on the Underground's dreary Northern Line, and rich in traffic fumes, litter, and steadily rising crime.
When I was invited to write a history of Holy Ghost Church, Balham, I discovered a newer reason for putting the place on the map. It is a parish that is an icon of liturgical hope in a most unlikely setting.
Balham today is what is coyly described as "mixed race". It has a very large number of young families, and they represent every continent on earth - Africans, West Indians, Asians, South Americans - and a wide range of Europeans. with people originating from France, Poland, Ireland, and even England!
In recent years it has become a rather well-to-do district, because its proximity to London makes it attractive to city bankers and lawyers and businessmen. The houses are for the most part late Victorian and very attractive. The traffic, litter, and crime along the Balham High Road all continue, but in the quiet residential roads there is an air of prosperity and family life.
So where does good liturgy fit into all of this? Holy Ghost Church was built in the 1890s and occupies a corner of a quiet square. It is a pleasing building, made wider a few decades ago by the addition of a side aisle, which was once the chapel of an adjoining convent. The church is now packed for several Masses each Sunday.
Parish music director is Jeremy de Satge. He runs The Music Makers, an organisation dedicated to fostering good music in Catholic parishes and schools. It sells CDs and tapes, publishes music, sponsors talks and conferences on the subject, and is beginning to make an impact in the difficult territory of post-1960s Catholic liturgical and musical life. Its CD, Plainsong for Parishes, offers six plainsong settings of the Mass and is selling well - it is currently used as course material at the Franciscan University of Steubenville in the US.
At Balham, there is a parish choir that sings Latin plainchant, and lovely settings of the Introit verse in Latin and English. The congregation has been taught some Mass settings and now large numbers of them join in, too.
The choir meets weekly to practise. It is made up of volunteers, many of whom do not read music. They are amateurs in the best sense of the word - people who love what they are doing.
Add to this a dignified sanctuary, a glittering new tabernacle in gold, marble floors that shine, a generous array of candles in tall silver candlesticks, and priests who celebrate the liturgy with love - and you have something that builds up the parish numbers, and attracts people from farther afield too.
Of course, good news spreads. A new CD has just come out from The Music Makers that aims to help priests, deacons, and seminarians to sing the Mass. Called Let us proclaim the Mystery of Faith, it was produced in conjunction with St John's seminary, Wonersh, which is the seminary for the local diocese, Southwark.
Is all this difficult? It seems not - although goodwill and energy are required. Jeremy de Satge is a convert- he joined the Church aged 18, back in the late 1970s, after a childhood spent singing in Anglican church and cathedral choirs. As a Catholic, he came to know and love the music and liturgy at London's Brompton Oratory and this was partly what inspired him to see what he could achieve at parish level.
Of course, commitment and encouragement from the parish priest are essential. Father Stephen Langridge, parish priest at Balham, makes no secret of wanting the best for God - a church that is a true place of prayer, a devout and enthusiastic congregation, a parish where the children are well instructed and the Faith is taught and honoured. Is it just a coincidence that confession is widely promoted? Confessions are heard regularly, including on Sundays, and the subject is mentioned frequently from the pulpit.
The parish school is also a part of all this. Chatting to one small pupil, I asked her about Ash Wednesday. She knew all about receiving ashes and could recite the formula "Remember, man..." and knew all about Lent and "giving things up". But she also knew more: "The ashes are made from the palms from Palm Sunday", she said. "Father Stephen showed us how - we had a brazier in the playground and he burned some palms and showed us the ashes and those are the ashes he used at the Mass". Now, that's how to teach children liturgy!
Could all this be duplicated elsewhere? Why not? We need to emphasise how comparatively easy it is to learn - and to enjoy learning - plainchant. Jeremy de Satge says, "There are at least 13 plainsong settings of the Mass readily available. The most popular is Mass VIII or De Angelis but others, such as Mass XI, Orbis Factor, may be added. I have been delighted with how the congregation now joins in with singing the Mass settings, as they have become more familiar".
Writing the history of a Catholic parish - as I have been doing with Balham over the past year - makes you see things in perspective. In the parish's early years, a generation of its young men was decimated in war, and to this day the names on the marble monument with the simple dates 1914-18 tug at the heart.
Just two decades later, at the end of World War II, the stained glass windows of the church were a mass of shattered ruins from enemy bombing and the parish priest was writing bleak begging letters to the authorities for a ration of coal, as his bomb-damaged house was bitterly cold.
In the 1960s, sudden post-Vatican II changes disoriented many Catholics. By the 1980s, immigration had seen the replacement of a traditionally Irish-based community with people from all over the world, and massive social changes meant that family break-up, divorce, cohabitation and juvenile crime were a normal part of South London life.
But the Faith is bigger than all of this. I remember a time when many people were convinced that the traditional Catholic parish was a dead idea, that small informal Mass communities, meeting in people's homes, would become the norm.
But today, cars jostle for space in Nightingale Square, and the names of boys who grew up here and were slaughtered in the 1914-18 war look down on a packed church where today's children wriggle and pray and sing and prepare for First Holy Communion. There is always something new, and the Faith has the capacity to inspire new and good things all the time.
More information about The Music Makers CDs can be found on the web site of CanticaNOVA: www.canticanova.com and it can also be obtained in Melbourne through www.catholicbookshop.com.au. The illustration is courtesy of Father Stephen Langridge, parish priest of Holy Ghost Church.
Joanna Bogle is a Catholic journalist who lives in London and is active in many movements. She appears frequently on radio and television, and is soon to appear in a series on EWTN. Her article first appeared in 'The Adoremus Bulletin' and is reprinted with permission.