Keswick St John, Cumbria, England

Keswick St John, Keswick, Cumbria, England


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Keswick St John
Location: Keswick, Cumbria, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 10 May 2009, 10:00am

The building

A pink sandstone church in the Old English style, dating from 1838, the work of the architect Anthony Salvin, an expert in medieval architecture noted for his restoration of castles and country houses. It occupies an elevated position overlooking the town of Keswick, a site chosen on advice given by the poet William Wordsworth; indeed, its spire can be seen for miles around. The grave of the novelist Sir Hugh Walpole lies in the churchyard. The interior consists of a wide nave with aisles, chancel, sanctuary and Lady chapel, and it contains some beautiful stained glass windows by Henry Holiday, who illustrated the first edition of Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass and whose windows appear in dozens of British churches, including one in Westminster Abbey. Hanging above the north aisle is a banner depicting St Herbert, who lived nearby during the 7th century, the work of Josefina de Vasconcellos, who until her death in 2005 at age 101 was the world's oldest living sculptress. Finely carved oak choir stalls flank the altar, which has Old English style riddel posts. A font and an eagle lectern, carved by a parishioner, stand on either side of the chancel steps.

The church

On Sundays there are normally two eucharists followed by a sung evensong. However, the town was hosting an international jazz festival, so on this particular day a jazz songs of praise was programmed for the evening. Further eucharists are celebrated during the week at various locations and there is a busy calendar of meetings for the many groups associated with the church. St John's also hosts a series of concerts throughout the year given by choirs and chamber ensembles, together with organ recitals. Indeed, Keswick choral society had held their spring concert at the church on the previous evening, singing works by Haydn and Mendelssohn.

The neighborhood

Keswick is a bustling market town that nestles on the shore of Derwentwater, in my view the prettiest lake in the Lake District. It is set like a jewel in the Cumbrian mountains and attracts visitors from all over the world who come to engage in mountain or water sports, or simply to walk amongst glorious scenery. The church lies on a road leading out of the town in a quiet residential area.

The cast

The Revd Canon Stephen Pye, vicar.

What was the name of the service?

Sung eucharist and Sunday school

How full was the building?

The church was quite full, with probably about 100 in the congregation. There were a few children with parents but I would say that most were on the wrong side of 50. I also noticed a few nuns in the congregation.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

I was greeted with good morning from a lady who handed me a hymn book, a pew sheet and a service booklet.

Was your pew comfortable?

I was as comfortable as you could be sitting on an oak pew. The hassocks were deeply cushioned and comfortable to kneel on.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

It was fairly quiet, with just a few whispered conversations being held. There was an air of expectancy. The chancel steps appeared to have been made into a kind of stage.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Good morning. You might have thought we were going to perform this morning on this stage, but we're not! It's here because we had the choral society yesterday, and this evening we've got jazz songs of praise. But this morning it's the fifth Sunday of Easter and we're going to begin our eucharist with hymn number 151."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Complete Mission Praise, Common Worship, and a pew sheet listing the hymns to be sung and the collect, readings and gospel.

What musical instruments were played?

The organ was built by Arthur Harrison of Durham and is considered to be one of the finest small church organs in the north of England. My heart sank when the first hymn was played on a piano because it made me wonder if the organ was out of action. However, the next hymn was played on the organ by a lady who subsequently used both instruments expertly throughout the service.

Did anything distract you?

I was rather irritated by the commotion that was coming from the back of the church. I think it came from a group of toddlers who were playing noisily with toys. Thankfully they were removed after about 10 minutes, presumably to the Sunday school. Also, when some notices were read at the end of the service, I'm not sure if I heard it correctly but apparently a group called the Mississippi Wigglers would be performing in the jazz program that evening. It caused great amusement!

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

A church leaflet described the worship as modern catholic and it came over to me as very middle-of-the-road dignified Anglican worship. The vicar wore vestments and the choir were robed but there wasn't anything like a sniff of incense. The only way it could be said to be happy clappy was the choice of hymns, some of which were modern and had tunes unfamiliar to me.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

11 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

9 – The vicar spoke clearly and made a joke about the coffee at St John's, which I am afraid was lost on me. He said his favourite tipple was Japanese tea and he produced a box of it, inviting us to sample it after the service. He told us an anecdote about Japanese tea. Apparently a servant was beheaded for dropping some roasted rice into an emperor's tea. But when the emperor drank the tea, he realised the flavour was much improved, so in atonement he named the tea after the servant.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

In the gospel John presents Jesus as the vine and God as the vine grower. Good quality wine is often drunk when there is a celebration, but different drinks that also need careful growth and preparation are consumed in other countries. In the gospel we see that Jesus is the incorruptible vine, his disciples are the living fruit-bearing branches, and Judas is a withered branch, fit only to be broken off and burnt. We can aim to be a branch and start today on the ups and downs of Christian life because Jesus is slowly transforming us and ridding us of impurities. At the end we will be worthy branches of the true vine. Then we will taste in heavenly Jerusalem the wine of eternal life and be with him forever.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

One of the most charming moments was during communion when the choir stood on the chancel steps to sing. They had an excellent range of voices and produced some lovely harmonies.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

The only time I wished I was elsewhere was when we sang the gradual hymn "You are the vine." When I located it in the hymn book I saw it was short, but found to my dismay that it was repeated over and over again to a rather sentimental and slushy tune. It turned out to be totally relevant, though, because the gospel and the sermon that followed were based on this subject.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

Several members of the congregation engaged us in conversation, and I managed to learn that the nuns in the congregation belonged to the order of the Holy Name and had taken vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. They lead retreats and quiet days, and offer accommodation at their house. The vicar asked where we were staying and where we came from, and we had a chat about churches in the area.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

The coffee was served in a cup and saucer and there was a goodly range of biscuits. I didn't see any Japanese tea on offer, though.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

8 – If I came to live here it would definitely be on the short list. I might even begin to enjoy the modern hymns!

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

Absolutely. It seemed to be a very friendly place and I liked the way the vicar conducted the service. A nice touch at the end of the service was when the vicar announced it was the 80th birthday of a gentleman sitting in the pew behind me. The choir sang an extemporary "Happy birthday to you" with a soprano providing a brilliant descant.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

The sermon about the vine delivered by a vicar who loved Japanese tea!

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