St John the Baptist, Hillingdon, London

St John the Baptist, Hillingdon, London


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Mystery Worshipper: Joe Public
Church: St John the Baptist
Location: Hillingdon, London
Date of visit: Sunday, 27 September 2009, 11:30am

The building

An ancient building that has grown over the centuries. The oldest part is the chancel arch, which dates back to around 1270. The nave and north and south aisles were built in the mid 14th century. The tower, dating from 1629, is embattled, of three stages, with an oak cupola topped by a weather vane. The tower contains a peal of ten bells. Inside, the walls are decorated with various memorials to local dignitaries over the centuries. There is some lovely stained glass, with the window in the south wall of the chancel showing moments in the life of John the Baptist. The churchyard holds some interesting old graves, including that of Maj. Gen. John Russell, grandson of Oliver Cromwell; and John Rich, originator of English pantomime and lessor of the theatre that later became Covent Garden Opera House.

The church

They have what they call a "Rolling Worship" each Sunday, which starts at 8.00am and runs all morning, where people can come and go as they please. They also have morning prayer each weekday and evening prayer on Sundays.

The neighborhood

Hillingdon is a leafy suburb at the extreme west of London lying just inside the M25 orbital motorway and in close proximity to Heathrow Airport. The area feels semi-rural, with open fields and woodland nearby, but still not far from the bustle of London.

The cast

The Rt Revd Pete Broadbent, Bishop of Willesden; the Revd Rob Harrison, vicar. There was also a lady who introduced herself as Christine.

What was the name of the service?

Rolling Worship, which began at 8.00 but which I joined at 11.30 at the part called Praise and Worship. This was followed at 12.00 by Confirmation and Communion. Earlier parts had included morning prayer, a communion service, breakfast, songs of praise, Bible study, family worship, and social hour with refreshments

How full was the building?

Pretty full. I gather more people had been present at the previous parts of the service and packed the church out.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

No, but this would have been difficult due to the "coming and going" nature of the service.

Was your pew comfortable?

Pretty standard pew – neither comfortable nor uncomfortable.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

I arrived during the social hour with refreshments. Coffee was being served and a lot of people were milling around, some coming, some going (having attended the earlier part of the worship).

What were the exact opening words of the service?

It wasn't obvious the service had begun until the worship band launched into a rendition of "When the saints go marching in." After that, the first words spoken were: "Good morning. Welcome to St John's. Can I just check that everyone has the correct paperwork?" (referring to the printed service sheets).

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Printed service sheet with liturgy, reading and songs all included.

What musical instruments were played?

Worship band consisting of piano, guitar, saxophone, trumpet, bass and drums. At one point there was some other wind instrument I couldn't see; I couldn't quite make out what it was.

Did anything distract you?

Lots, but that seemed to be the ethos of the service. Most noticeable were the children sitting on the chancel step, and in particular one little boy who climbed into the pulpit carrying some sort of propeller. This is in no way any sort of negative criticism, though, because due to the informal nature of the worship it all added to the experience. I thought it was wonderful to see the children as an integral part of the community.

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

Informal but structured and well planned. The first part of the service was praise and worship led by Christine, who also preached. This included songs, prayers, a scripture reading and address. Then came confirmation and communion, presided over by the bishop with the vicar assisting. No robes were worn. The bishop was resplendent in a rather fetching black waistcoat and jeans. The confirmation candidates (four of them) were each invited to introduce themselves and say why they were being confirmed. They obviously hadn't been forewarned about this and seemed a little embarrassed being put on the spot. Communion was celebrated with the congregation standing in a circle around the table. The communion wine was red Lambrusco served in wee cuppies.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

I hadn't realised it had started so didn't time it exactly, but it was about 10 minutes.

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

8 – Christine's talk was proof that props don't always cooperate in the way the speaker might have wished.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

She intended to use a small sycamore tree that had been growing in the church for a few weeks to illustrate the point that our faith will bear fruit when it is nurtured. However, the tree was clearly in poor condition and was dropping its leaves. And so, to much laughter from the congregation, she changed her message to show what happens when we do not nurture our faith.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The joy on the faces of the confirmation candidates.

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

The eucharistic prayer was Form D, the one with the "This is our story" response, which always makes me cringe.

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

Not much, really, as most people were busy congratulating the newly confirmed. This was fair enough, as they were the stars of the show today.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

No coffee, but a very nice buffet lunch was served. I have to say I felt uncomfortable about the leftover consecrated communion bread being served with lunch, though.

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

7 – Although I really enjoyed the service, I'm not sure I'd want this every week, as I prefer more traditional liturgy. However, I gather that the "rolling" style is done in such a way that every taste is catered to, with the earlier parts being a little more "trad". So if I lived in the area I'd give it a go.

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

Without a doubt.

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

The friendly, relaxed atmosphere.

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