St John the Baptist, Ipswich, England

St John the Baptist, Ipswich, England


Info and corrections →

Mystery Worshipper: Gerty & Swede
Church: St John the Baptist
Location: Ipswich, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 30 August 2009, 10:30am

The building

A very large red brick church, traditionally shaped but not like most traditional stone-built Suffolk Anglican churches. There is an enormous amount of useable space inside, with an additional hall to the rear. Everything looks well maintained inside and the wooden parquet floor has just been re-finished, creating a pleasingly light effect.

The church

They sponsor home groups for study and prayer. Among their several ministries are Meeting Point, where supervised play is provided for children while their parents hold Bible study, and the Gist, where adults under 30 have supper followed by Bible study, prayer and socialising. They also sponsor a chapter of the Mothers Union and a lunch club for older parishioners. There are two services each Sunday: either holy communion or morning prayer, in the traditional and contemporary styles, and a Sunday evening service, again alternating between the traditional and the contemporary.

The neighborhood

Ipswich is one of England's oldest towns, with part of its original plan surviving in the layout of modern streets. During the Middle Ages it was the site of several hospitals and religious houses. The shrine of Our Lady of Grace attracted countless pilgrims, including Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon. After breaking with Rome, Henry ordered the statue of Our Lady burned, although it may have been spirited away to Netunno, Italy, where a statue of similar description plays a prominent role in a procession to Our Lady held each May. Geoffrey Chaucer may have had roots in Ipswich; certainly he had the town's tradesmen in mind when he lampooned the merchant class in the Canterbury Tales. Cardinal Wolsey was born in Ipswich and founded a college there which became today's Ipswich School. Charles Dickens once stopped at the hotel known today as the Great White Horse, which he vividly described in his Pickwick Papers. Today's Ipswich has undergone much gentrification and is home to many artists. The church is located on the east side of Ipswich, densely populated with small to medium sized semi-detached and terraced houses.

The cast

The Revd Antony Wilson, vicar. A woman named Liz presented a short overview of the teaching series so far and oversaw the kids' stuff.

What was the name of the service?

All Age Worship

How full was the building?

Well, not that full really, but the building is so big that it would look empty with a couple of hundred people in it. We'd estimate that around 120 were attending. There was a disproportionate amount of grey hair, but most age ranges were represented to one degree or another. The congregation were predominantly white middle class.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Although no one formally welcomed us as we came through the door, a few nodded. When we entered the main part of the church, the vicar spotted us as new and engaged us easily in conversation. He then led us to a seat and introduced us to someone friendly.

Was your pew comfortable?

Not particularly. It was a wooden chair reminiscent of old school chairs. They were held a little too intimately together in sets of four by wooden slats.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Fairly relaxed, with people milling around and catching up after the summer break. Some banter could be heard of the type peculiar to older, middle class people. The worship band was playing quietly.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Is this microphone working...? Good morning and welcome to St John's."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Songs were projected up on projector screens and flat screen TV monitors around the building. We got the feeling that there is a small but significant techno-faction operating in the church. The pew Bibles were New International Version.

What musical instruments were played?

Keyboard, bass guitar, clarinet. There were also three singers.

Did anything distract you?

A number of things were distracting on different levels. The most obvious was the noise coming from babies and toddlers occasionally. Given that this was billed as all age worship, that's fair enough. The second distraction was the sound system. The sound quality was poor and the radio microphone was noisy, interfering with the clarity of the prayers. Finally, the reserve you sometimes find in Anglican churches was a little distracting.

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

Happy-clappy songs delivered in a reserved way. For an all age worship service there were very few songs – only four in fact – mostly from the 1990s. The band played in accompaniment mode (as distinct from actually leading or inspiring the worship), with the vicar introducing the songs. The music was a bit on the quiet side, for us at least.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

31 minutes of activities for the congregation to choose from, preceded by a short introduction.

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

6 – It was good that there were lots of things going on. As a group we covered several of them. One activity was arty and seemed to be well received. A PowerPoint show seemed to fail to engage the audience. The talking portion was hampered by our not being able to hear the speaker very well.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

David's life and what we can learn from it. Illustrations were used; the speaker was not afraid to be vulnerable. There was an invitation to connect the issues to our own lives.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

Catching up with a friend we hadn't seen for years and chatting informally with the vicar's wife afterward.

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

The sense of compromise – the age-old Anglican tension between those who want to move on quickly and those who like things as they are.

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

A friend from years ago found us and struck up conversation. Throughout our visit, though, people spotted that we were new and made an effort to engage us in conversation. As everyone was leaving, I hung around at the back, and even then someone began to talk to me. This is a very friendly church when people relax.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Tea and cakes were excellent; the coffee was hot brown liquid – that's the best I can say for it!

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

6 – I would be going there with an agenda rather than accepting it as it is – that's only a good thing if you're sure you're called to it!

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

Not as much as the informal stuff before and after did.

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

The friendly chats before and after the service.

Our Mystery Worshippers are volunteers who warm church pews for us around the world. If you’d like to become a Mystery Worshipper, start here.

Find out how to reproduce this report in your church magazine or website.

Comments and corrections

To comment, please scroll to the end of this report and add your thoughts there. To send us factual corrections, please contact us. We also discuss reports on our Ecclesiantics bulletin board.

© Ship of Fools