St John the Evangelist, Cairns City, Queensland, Australia


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St John the Evangelist, Cairns City
Location: Queensland, Australia
Date of visit: Sunday, 3 March 2024, 9:00am

The building

This stucco building, open to its garden, has suggestions of Gothic Revival. The St John’s website presents a photo of the church just after its construction in 1927 and comments that it ‘looks essentially the same as when it first was built.’ The church building is said to be the oldest surviving church in the city of Cairns, and was built 50 years after the founding of the city.

The church

The worshippers were quite ethnically diverse, a mix of young adults and middle aged people. They seemed to know each other well. No children were present.

The neighborhood

St John’s is in the central area of Cairns, a city on the tropical north-east coast of Queensland. The city was founded by British colonisers in 1876 on land inhabited by the Yidinji, an Aboriginal Australian people. The church is just a couple of blocks from the shore of Trinity Bay, and one block away from St Monica’s, the Roman Catholic Cathedral, in an area that seems to be less prosperous than it may once have been.

The cast

The priest in charge was the celebrant and preacher. Twenty-nine people were in attendance, and at least 10 of them had roles: two lectors, a vested liturgical assistant, a newly ordained deacon who assisted with the communion, an organist, a tech person who used a computer to display PowerPoint slides, two ushers, and a greeter.

What was the name of the service?

Eucharist Service.

How full was the building?

Half full.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Someone welcomed us and gave us a service sheet with hymn texts, but without music. At the beginning of the service, the celebrant asked visitors to identify themselves and say where they were from. At the peace, every person in the church greeted us and each other. It looked like a liturgical dance!

Was your pew comfortable?

Narrow wood pews are never comfortable. At St John’s, canvas seat cushions were occasionally lying atop the pews. Some people used them; there were none near us.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Some folks were inside at a hymn sing; others waited in the garden until the music was finished.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

‘Good morning. Let us sing the opening hymn.’

What books did the congregation use during the service?

No books or leaflets were used in the service. Some people (including the lectors) brought their own Bibles.

What musical instruments were played?

Electronic organ, guitar, native drum.

Did anything distract you?

The man in front of us entered, knelt, then sat and took off his shoes and socks. He walked barefoot to the lectern to read a lesson and remained unshod during the rest of the service. It was a holy act, a humble act, a recognition that he was here to serve God and in the presence of God. It was also distracting, as we tried to look around and see which other people had followed suit.

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

The worship was relaxed. The people knew what to expect, so it was comfortable. During the sermon, the preacher nodded at the organist in the first pew. The organist moved quickly to the computer tech person in the second pew who appeared to be ill, and then helped her into a side aisle. The newly ordained deacon came to help as well. The preacher stopped his sermon, offered a prayer for the tech person and those who were assisting her, saw the organist on her phone, and then continued preaching. The congregation was concerned, but not agitated. They seemed to know they could trust that help had been summoned and would arrive. Indeed, after the creed, paramedics arrived. The celebrant suggested that we all ‘sing a little’ as the tech person was assessed and moved onto a gurney. The organist was unable to play, as she was assisting, but music began. The vested liturgical assistant had a guitar by his seat, and a woman in the congregation had a long drum in her pew. And people began to sing a Solomon Island hymn familiar to them.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

Essentially, there were two sermons. One welcomed a newly ordained deacon, described the ordination, and presented the deacon with gifts. The preacher then transitioned into describing the role of a deacon and addressed the scriptures. The second part was 10-12 minutes long.

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

8 — The preacher was articulate, clear and direct. He did not use notes.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

We are called to be Christ's presence in the world. The sermon began with a distinction between the call of priests to serve in the Church and the call of deacons to serve in the world. The scriptural example was that of the Gerasene demoniac who, after being being healed by Jesus, begged to stay with Jesus, but Jesus sent him out into the world, ‘to declare how much God had done for him.’

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The beautiful way the congregation reacted and responded to the medical crisis. As the tech person became ill, another congregant took her place; as the organist left her keyboard, others found alternate instrumentation. The deacon lent a reassuring presence, and the people trusted this process sufficiently that they could continue to worship.

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

The hymn sing at the beginning. There was no direction about what hymns to sing, and we couldn't find them on the handout. There was no music, so we could not sing.

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

There was no gathering after the service. People waited until the (many) candles were extinguished and left. As we walked outside, a friendly man engaged us in conversation, and several people welcomed us and wished us well, and thanked us for coming.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There was no ‘social hour.’ As we waited for a ride, an entourage of several cars arrived and folks with various equipment got out and waited outside St John's. A bishop then arrived. He said they were a Methodist congregation that worshipped at St John's every week after the service we had just attended. He then offered to have his son drive us where we were going!

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

8 — This congregation opened their arms and welcomed us in. Their family got a little bigger and so did ours.

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

Absolutely. God was present and palpable, and we were grateful.

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

The faith and the faithfulness of the people.

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