St John the Baptist, Ripon, North Yorkshire, England

St John the Baptist, Ripon, North Yorkshire, England


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Mystery Worshipper: Salskov
Church: St John the Baptist
Location: Ripon, North Yorkshire, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 11 April 2010, 10:45am

The building

The original church, dating from 1109 (I was told very pointedly that the parish is over 900 years old), was the chapel of St John's Hospital, given by Archbishop Thomas II of York "for the love of God and St Wilfrid" to the poor of Ripon. The details of the usage to which the hospital was to be put was the subject of much controversy throughout the ages and ranged from an almshouse to bed and board for schoolmasters. The original chapel fell into disuse by 1722, and for the first half of the 19th century was used as a boys' school. The present building dates from 1868 and is the work of the Leeds architect William Henry Crossland, who designed country estates, schools, hotels and shops as well as churches. It is of sandstone and is in the late pointed style that was so popular in churches of the period. There is a stone bellcote topped by a cross. The small interior has plain white walls and is furnished with wooden pews and decorated with attractive modern banners as well as brass memorial plaques.

The church

This is a small church that offers a quieter traditional alternative to the busy evangelical concerns of its sibling Holy Trinity, Blossomgate. The congregation tends to be small, the regulars being supplemented by occasional visitors such as myself and a family of four who were present at the service. There are two celebrations of holy communion each Sunday.

The neighborhood

Ripon, the fourth smallest city in England, was founded by St Wilfrid during the time the Angles ruled Northumbria. An important religious centre, the city was hit hard by the English Reformation. It became known for its wool and cloth trade during the time of the Plantagenets, and for the manufacture of spurs during the 16th and 17th centuries, when spurs were a fashion ornament as well as essential riding apparel. Today Ripon is visited by tourists seeking out the historic religious sites and is a thriving market city. From the middle ages and continuing to this day, the Ripon Hornblower sounds the nightly curfew from the four corners of the marketplace. St John's occupies the same ground as the almshouses it originally served. I have a feeling they may now be parish offices. It is located on Bondgate, one of the streets by which one enters the city centre, and thus slightly away from the immediate bustle of the market square.

The cast

The Revd Mark Tanner, vicar of Holy Trinity Blossomgate and recently appointed area dean, was filling in for the usual celebrant.

What was the name of the service?

Holy Communion

How full was the building?

Nineteen plus organist and celebrant. In such a small church, this amounted to a fair sprinkling of people.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

A lady handed me the hymn book and service sheet. The vicar, who was setting up, enquired where I was from and answered a few questions about the history of the church. He also gave me a leaflet on historic churches in the Harrogate district. He wondered if I intended to stay for the service, and I assured him that I meant to do so! A gentleman who later read the lesson asked me if I was used to the old or new communion services. His question rather puzzled me till he explained that it referred to the Book of Common Prayer versus Common Worship. St John's uses the latter, which is what I'm most familiar with. Maybe he felt that someone interested enough to turn up so early might be a dyed-in-the-wool traditionalist.

Was your pew comfortable?

Plain varnished wood with red carpet to soften it. Quite comfortable for what turned out to be a fairly short service.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

I arrived with half an hour to spare before the service. There was a quiet bustle of preparation and chat, with some people sitting in silence. I felt lucky in being able to sit on a bench in the sunny churchyard and write a few notes without feeling too conspicuous.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"This is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

There were pew Bibles, but see below. We were given the Complete Anglican Hymns Old and New,and a service sheet. I noted afterwards that there were copies of Hymns Ancient and Modern, Revised on the shelves by the door.

What musical instruments were played?


Did anything distract you?

The vicar wore a surplice and black scarf, which seemed rather funereal. I realised on closer inspection that the scarf had motifs of flames and the Paraclete. And, most embarrassingly, my mobile, which had been set to silent, vibrated just loudly enough to disturb the family in the pew in front. Ouch!

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

Standard Common Worship, formal but relaxed. Made even more relaxed by a member of the congregation who reminded the vicar that there was an opening hymn we had not sung. "I'm getting there," was his good-humoured response. Well, I don't like to be deprived of hymns either, and Holy Trinity probably does things differently.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

10 minutes.

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

7 – The vicar spoke clearly, keeping in mind the day's gospel passage that was the basis of his sermon. But he spent rather more time on the first two sections than on the last, which gave me the feeling that within his sermon structure, he may have been extemporising.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Using the doubting Thomas story, the vicar said that it was necessary both to acknowledge and to share our difficulties, and that this was part of growth. He then went on to mention four things that he felt he needed more of: confusion (amazement, surprise), joy, peace, and the Holy Spirit. The last received a rather cursory mention.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The beautiful spring day was a good start. The hymns were mostly familiar and in reasonable keys.

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

My mobile! Rooting in my handbag to locate the thing would have created even further disturbance, so I had to wait for the vibration to stop of itself. The communion hymn, which was obviously unfamiliar to the congregation and had only two verses – not quite enough time for us to learn it on the hoof. Also, while the page numbers for the readings were announced, not every pew had a Bible, and people were looking round for them.

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

Tea and coffee were served at the back of the church in real cups and saucers. Sadly, I'd missed the Easter cake on offer the previous week! Regulars were happy to chat. There was a prominent fair trade poster on the notice board, so I presume the tea and coffee were fair traded.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Quite satisfying.

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

8 – A friendly congregation, relaxed service and good music. Just my cup of tea!

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


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

Sitting in the churchyard in the sun writing my preliminary comments.

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