St John the Baptist, Timber Hill, Norwich

St John the Baptist, Timber Hill, Norwich, England


Info and corrections →

Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St John the Baptist
Location: Timber Hill, Norwich, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 10 February 2019, 11:00am

The building

The church is medieval, dating from the 11th century. Externally it presents as a typical flint-clad Norfolk church. Internally it is intimate, warm, and comfortable. As I walked in, I was struck by the dark wood of the barrel roof, the white walls, and the strong splash of colour from statuary and reredos, all lit by candles.

The church

St John's describes itself as the main Anglican church in the Catholic tradition in the centre of Norwich. The website shows events for World Aids Day, Transgender Day of Remembrance, and a LGBT+ carol service.

The neighborhood

Norwich lies about 100 miles northeast of London and is regarded as England’s most complete medieval city, with its cobbled streets, winding lanes, ancient buildings and half-timbered houses. It is one of the UK’s most popular tourist destinations. The church is set in Norwich city centre, opposite John Lewis & Partners, the renowned department store famous for quality, service and fair pricing. Also nearby are high end eateries and a famous local pub, The Gardeners Arms, better known as The Murderers due to its rather grisly history.

The cast

The church is in interregnum, and a local priest known to the congregation (but not introduced) celebrated and preached,

What was the name of the service?

High Mass, Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time.

How full was the building?

As I entered 10 minutes early, there were perhaps 20 people in the body of the church. By the time the service started this had swelled to perhaps 35. The altar party added another 10, with a further 10 arriving during the opening parts of the service. Half full?

Did anyone welcome you personally?

It was windy and cold, and the external church door was closed. As I opened it, a greeter said hello, offered me necessary books/papers, and advised me that the hymns were the ones on the board, not in the notice sheet.

Was your pew comfortable?

Yes, linked wooden chairs with padded seats and kneeling cushions stored under the seat in front.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

The house lights were dimmed before the service, raised for the procession. People knelt to pray, lit candles, sat quietly. It felt like a space set apart, expectant. The organist played quietly for a couple of minutes before the start.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

‘In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.’ Prior to this, the celebrant and preacher came forward to remind us that he had changed the hymns from the ones in the notice sheet to better fit his theme.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The New English Hymnal, Parish Mass Booklet, notice sheet with readings/collects/notices.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ. I found the sound from the organ lacked clarity at times, and observed that it seemed crammed into a very small space above the vestry (NE corner of the church). The organ console did not appear to be in the body of the church. I found out more about the organ after the service.

Did anything distract you?

Loads. Today was the day of the local derby – Norwich vs Ipswich – and as I walked to church the town was full of green and yellow. In church the altar party were wearing green and (pale) gold vestments – and I was tickled by thinking of them as ‘The Canaries Vestment Set.’ (The Norwich City football club are called The Canaries after a 16th century legend.) I noticed the flower arrangements were also yellow and green. No comfort for the Ipswich fan to be found here. Then the cantor came up wearing a bright deep gold jumper, and I wondered whether she was a Wolverhampton Wanderers fan (the traditional strip of the Wolves, as they are called, consists of gold shirts and black shorts). At this point I had a word with myself. More distractions below!!

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

So high there was risk of nosebleeds. Whilst this is a C of E church, it offers worship following what their website terms ‘the western rite.’ It is higher up the candle than any Catholic mass I have ever attended. I was delighted by the synchronised moves around the altar – two (servers? deacons?) people in dalmatics held the skirts of the priest’s cope and the three moved in perfect togetherness around the altar as it was censed. The corners! The corners! They were spectacular! Instead of a confession, there was water and salt sprinkled over us all in a procession thingy – I did kind of miss confessing my sins personally. I found all of this to be reverent, fun and distracting.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

8 minutes.

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

9 — The preacher was clear, sincere and spoke with authority, with little use of his notes.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The text was the gospel for the day, Luke 5:1-11 ( ‘from now on you will fish for people’). We were challenged to be a church shaped by mission: to be a Christian is to be sent to proclaim the good news. This good news is not just to encourage people to be kind or to challenge injustice. No, it is to proclaim Christ. When we are embarrassed to witness to Jesus we are not the church. Put out into deep water, lower your nets, witness to his name in this place.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The reverence of the worship, the devotion of the gathered church, the sermon.

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

The idea of having the feminine at the heart of worship is attractive, but I’m not sure that this expression of it does it for me. Firstly, Mary is a very particular idea of the feminine. Secondly, it may be that I’m just too Protestant to hear easily that Our Lady of Walsingham will answer prayers.

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

I had already exchanged a few words with the lady sat next to me during the peace. She asked me if I would take coffee – I asked permission and then said I wanted to take a few photos first. As I hung around, the church warden introduced himself and was very friendly in showing me the organ loft and talking about the importance of maintaining the tradition of Catholic worship within Anglicanism. The organ console was above the vestry and I climbed up after the church warden (ladder with rope handrail). I was told that the altar party mainly hear the swell, whilst the nave mainly hears the great. I was subsequently introduced to the lovely organist, who was kind and generous.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

50p for a mug of instant. Not the best.

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

10 — I’d love to visit again. If that is how they do an ordinary Sunday, what on earth must festivals be like?

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

Yes. It isn’t my regular diet, but I really enjoyed the worship. But it saddens me that women’s ministry is not affirmed, though I have some understanding of why this is so.

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

Three things: Norwich City (Canaries) Vestments. Synchronised censing of the altar. The sermon’s call to witness to Jesus Christ.

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