St John the Evangelist, Bexley, Greater London

St John the Evangelist, Bexley, Greater London


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St John the Evangelist
Location: Bexley, Greater London
Date of visit: Sunday, 20 December 2009, 6:30pm

The building

A fairly typical Victorian structure of grey stone. It has a spire, added in the early 20th century, that is visible from quite a distance. Aesthetically it is a very nice building to look at. The interior is nice and airy, with wooden beams on the ceiling of the nave. There is an iron screen separating the nave from the chancel, which has a beautiful painted roof with plant-like designs. The altar is set quite far back in the chancel, and above it hangs a stone carving of the Last Supper. The pews are all of a traditional wooden type. The pulpit is of brown and white marble, and the overall impression is one of lightness. There was a fairly large Christmas tree at the back of the church, and we were told that it's the church's tradition to write the names of lost loved-ones on paper stars and to hang them on the tree. There is a church hall with kitchen facilities that is used by various local groups.

The church

They sponsor a number of groups: there were notices on the board for two Advent groups, and the website lists others, such as Musical Toddlers, Ladies' Fellowship and Church Flowers.

The neighborhood

Bexley is a fairly affluent area on the southeast edge of London. The immediate area around the church is quite leafy, and Bexley town centre has a village feel with some very old buildings, restaurants, pubs and a little stream just away from the centre. Surrounding the area are 1930s-type suburbs, and the A2 motorway is a few minutes away. There are a number of churches in a very small area.

The cast

The Revd Scott Lamb, vicar, who has been at St John's for only a few months. This is his first Christmas there, and he seems to have tried to make his mark on the church, as he commented during the service that he'd "thrown lots of new music at the choir" for tonight's service.

What was the name of the service?

Carol Service

How full was the building?

The church is a fair size, and it was heartening to see it a good three-quarters full, particularly as the weather was very cold and there was a good inch of ice on the path. The congregation were all fairly smartly dressed.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Yes. One of the two sidesman said hello as he handed me a service sheet. The chap in the pew next to me smiled as I sat down but nothing more than that.

Was your pew comfortable?

It was a standard wooden pew but did the job. The back was at a nice angle to get comfortable for the duration of the service.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Rather quiet, just a murmur of chatter from the congregation.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Good evening, everyone, and welcome to our carol service."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

A photocopied and stapled hymn sheet produced specially for the occasion. No other books were available in the pews.

What musical instruments were played?

An organ, played very well. There was also a very good choir which sounded very well-rehearsed, and the vicar drew particular note to this in the service. The choir encompassed a wide range of age groups.

Did anything distract you?

Being a carol service, there were quite a few children present, who were very well-behaved throughout. Unfortunately, the same could not be said for the two older ladies opposite me, who talked throughout one of the readings. Perhaps they were bemoaning the fact that they couldn't hear very well, as the reader was not speaking into the microphone. This made listening difficult, especially when she had to compete with the aforementioned chatty ladies! There was a wooden wardrobe to the right of the chancel and I wondered if the cast of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe might walk out at any minute. Also, I felt the choice of readings was a little too weighted toward the New Testament. There could have been a few prophecies thrown in here and there from the likes of Isaiah or Micah, which I always particularly enjoy at Christmas.

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

Fairly stiff-upper-lip. Both choir and vicar were robed, and we used the more formal version of the Lord's Prayer ("Our Father, which art in heaven"). The service followed the traditional nine lessons and carols format, but each of the readings ended with "Thanks be to God" without the preceding "This is the Word of the Lord" or "Here endeth the lesson." Some of the carols felt a little too easy to sing, and I wondered if they'd lowered the pitch or if I was just in exceptional voice that evening.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

There was no sermon, but the vicar interjected a few comments at various points in the service.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The lovely lightness with which we sang "The Holly and the Ivy." This is a carol I've never really appreciated, but at this service they got the speed just right and the folksy tune really made me smile. Being inside a fairly warm church on such a cold night with a good-sized congregation and pretty surroundings made me feel lovely and Christmasy! But all that cosy warmth came at a price – read on!

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

Picture a beautiful building, decorative pillars down the nave, a nicely ornate chancel and an impressively large carving of the Last Supper above the altar. A tastefully-decorated Christmas tree adorns the back of the church. Now picture two long metal rails screwed between each row of pillars down the entire length of the church. Now imagine someone has attached a large number of 1970s-style bathroom bar heaters to these rails.

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

Well, I tried sitting in my pew for a few minutes looking confused, and then I walked to the back and did my best to look lost. All I felt was awkward, and so I wandered around a bit as if unsure where to go next. But no one approached me at all! Rather, everyone filed out in their little groups toward the church hall behind. After a while I did the same and stayed a few more minutes looking lost in the church hall. One older gentleman gave me a half-hearted smile, but other than that I felt completely unwelcome. There was a choir member standing by the door giving everyone a mechanical droid-like "Good to see you." I was surprised at the lack of welcome.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Mulled wine and mince pies. Tables and chairs had been set out a little too far apart for intermingling, and all the little social groups seemed to stake out their territories on these, with no room for strangers to join. It was a cold evening and I finally thought I should better get home safely before it got even colder! So I left, stopping at a shop on the way to pick up some salt for my driveway.

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

2 – I'd give it an 8 or 9 based on the service and the attractiveness of the building, but I have to knock it down some having experienced the cliquiness of the congregation.

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

Yes, on the whole it did. It was a nice, comfortable, traditional Anglican lessons and carols. The carols were nicely sung and the readings were read thoughtfully.

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

The 1970s-style bathroom heaters between the pillars.

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