St John the Baptist, Hove, East Sussex, England

St John the Baptist, Hove, East Sussex, England


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St John the Baptist
Location: Hove, East Sussex, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 1 June 2008, 10:30am

The building

A large 150-year-old Gothic church with a lush garden to one side. The church spire is a major landmark in Hove. A portion of the building has been converted to a community centre – indeed, as one approaches the building from the west, a sign reading Cornerstone Community Centre gives the impression that this is a "former" church. However, a portion has been kept consecrated for worship, with an entrance door on the northeast corner near the tower. Internally, the worship space is a smallish cruciform square with the altar in the centre. The organ and sanctuary fill the eastern transept, and there are banks of five pine pews in each of the north, west and south arms of the cross. The communion rail follows that pattern, surrounding the central altar on all three sides. It is definitely different from the ordinary aisle arrangement. It's a bright space and everyone is facing the middle.

The church

This is a busy, vibrant hub of the community. More than half of the physical building has been given over to community projects and events. There is everything from social work to aerobics, yoga to film study, child care to weight-loss groups, and a cafe evidently catering to people with nothing to do and nowhere to do it. There is one sort of activity or another scheduled for weeknights, ranging from a curry club that meets at a local tandoori restaurant to consider "life, the universe, and everything in the process," to a singing society and a film club. A quiet traditional eucharist plus a sung eucharist using Common Worship are celebrated each Sunday, along with holy communion according to the 1662 Book of Common Prayer on Wednesdays. A healing service and Celtic communion are held on alternating Thursdays.

The neighborhood

Hove is on England's south coast, near Brighton, and together with its larger neighbour forms the borough of Brighton and Hove. In 2000, Her Majesty the Queen granted the borough city status despite the absence of a cathedral. Of the two municipalities, Hove is by far the more genteel. Its seafront is adorned with hundreds of simple wooden beach huts, in contrast to the amusements and games and pools and piers of busy, bustling Brighton. St John the Baptist serves a small parish consisting mainly of the fashionable avenues of Hove, which run from the seafront to the busy main road. These are five broad mid-Victorian residential streets, originally home to the wealthy whose servants lived elsewhere in the town. Today it's a high-density residential area, with most of the grand homes having been converted to multiple occupancy. Whether the residents attend the church or visit the community centre, or only know it as a landmark, very few people in the area would be unaware of St Johns.

The cast

The Revd Paul Doick, curate.

What was the name of the service?

Parish Eucharist

How full was the building?

Fairly full. There were people in all of the pews, but no one was crowded together. I'd guess there were 60 or 70 souls in there.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

I was welcomed at the door by a woman who handed me the hymnbook and service sheets. A few steps further on, another woman checked that I had everything and also welcomed me.

Was your pew comfortable?

The pews all had long runners of pale pink carpet along them, and they were perfectly comfortable, thank you.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Lots of chatter and gossip and friendly waving. Then suddenly the celebrant materialised, and everyone stopped talking and scrambled to their feet. He didn't process, he just appeared, genuflected and walked around the altar in the middle of the cruciform space, to stand behind it facing the people in the west bank of pews.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Good morning and welcome. Please do be seated." (And then he launched immediately into the notices before the service.)

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Hymns Old and New, New Anglican Edition. There was a service booklet (Common Worship) and a weekly pew sheet on which the Bible readings were printed. It didn't say, but they seemed to be New International Version.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ – a big one, with huge pipes looming over the pews to the north of the altar. It appeared modern to me.

Did anything distract you?

The most distracting thing was my own self-consciousness, as this is my first report and I felt a bit conspicuous, knowing nobody and trying to catch all the detail and not wanting to be caught writing! In other distractions, during the sermon a tiny baby just barely whimpered and its mother took it out. During the eucharistic prayer a couple of little girls ran quite wild for what felt like several minutes before their parents reined them in and separated them.

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

No clapping, but definitely not stiff. Comfortable, relaxed and well-behaved. I would say it cut right down the middle of the middle. The priest was properly vested in green, but there were no servers or attendants, except two lay assistants for distributing the communion wine. The priest carried the gospel book up to the pulpit quite reverently and read the gospel from there, after which he launched straight into the sermon. There was some moving around during the peace, but not excessive.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

10 minutes.

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

8 – The curate was well spoken and held one's attention. His sermon was creative, memorable, well structured, and quite entertaining. He pitched it well to a congregation of all ages.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

It was about obedience to God's will. He talked about the film Evan Almighty, based on the Noah story, which he used to illustrate our busyness and other avoidance tactics. He then tied it neatly to the gospel reading, which was from Matthew, the last bit of the Sermon on the Mount. In the end it came down to prayer being the transforming power in our relationship with God. He managed to get Bonhoeffer in there too somehow. Maybe I should raise that to a 9 out of 10!

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

During communion, the organist played Pachelbel's Canon in D very nicely. Call me sentimental, but I love that.

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

The lack of a choir. I thought it might just be a half-term absence, but there is nowhere to put one. One of the hymns was a modern one ("Be still for the presence of the Lord") and the congregation managed that, but the other three were wavery and quavery and not fun.

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

A woman approached me and was quite chatty and welcoming. The priest was at the door shaking hands, and he was also very open and friendly. He invited me to stay for coffee.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Very good coffee served in the community centre part of the building. It was in glass mugs, fresh and hot and strong. Astonishing. I couldn't see whether or not it was fair trade but I would be surprised if it wasn't.

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

5 – It was pleasant and it did the job, but I do prefer to have a choir.

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

Yes. It is a living, loving, happy congregation and I felt accepted and welcomed.

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

The unusual layout of the space.

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