St John the Baptist, Tuebrook (Exterior)

St John the Baptist, Tuebrook, Liverpool, England


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St John the Baptist
Location: Tuebrook, Liverpool, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 4 November 2012, 11:00am

The building

An important Grade I listed building in the mid-Victorian Decorated Gothic style, built by the prolific architect George Frederick Bodley between 1867 and 1870. The eight-bell tower has a graceful spire. The exterior is of cream sandstone with irregular contrasting pink banding, which is quite striking. The interior is sumptuously decorated throughout with gilding and ornate stencil work. The high altar is backed by an ornate triptych reredos and holds a big six and smaller six! The tabernacle is reminiscent of a medieval papal crown. At the east end of the north aisle is a shrine to Our Lady of Walsingham, while the south aisle contains a snug Lady chapel, dark and mysterious. Plentiful coloured and interesting artwork adorns the interior. There is a statue of Our Lady that I thought had a particularly manly face, and one of St John the Baptist sporting a furry goatskin tunic.

The church

The notice board proclaims: "This is your church" and sports a photograph of Father Simon Fisher, the young incumbent vicar. Among the former curates is David Hope (later Archbishop of York and now Lord Hope) in 1965. The church is currently having a push to promote stewardship, because it needs the income! It has Bible reading classes and seems popular for weddings, likes fellowship, and is big on the social side.

The neighborhood

St John's is on the corner of a very busy road junction. West Derby Road is a main commuter route, running for over a mile to Liverpool city centre, with shops strung along one side: takeaway restaurants, curry houses, convenience shops, pubs. There are streets of Victorian terraced houses running parallel along the length. A leafy boulevard with fine Victorian villas, now slightly dilapidated, stands at the southern end.

The cast

The Revd Simon Fisher, vicar, was preacher and celebrant, assisted by an unnamed deacon. Both were attired in crimson red brocade fiddle-back vestments with a touch of lace to their albs. A thurifer and server were also in the party.

What was the name of the service?

Procession and Sung Mass.

How full was the building?

It was a quarter full in the nave, a congregation of mixed ages: ladies, gents, young adults and seven or eight children including a baby who had a good bawl during the sermon. (It turned out to be the vicar's baby!)

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Yes. A sideswoman at the entrance handed me a service booklet and notice sheet, and said, "Hello. Yes, you can sit anywhere."

Was your pew comfortable?

No, it was a very uncomfortable pew with a ledge for your books – the sort that encourages one to sit up straight and behave oneself. The back dug in and the seat was too narrow. Embroidered kneeling pads complete the picture.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

When I arrived, the robed choir of three women and several men were singing matins with Father Fisher. The atmosphere was definitely churchy pre-service: people reading the bulletin, turning round to see who was coming in. Baby was babbling to itself.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"In the name of the Father ..."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

There was a printed order of service, with prayers, responses and hymns. Very handy because it told you when to sit, kneel or stand, so if you weren't a regular you knew what to do. User-friendly!

What musical instruments were played?

The fine pipe organ, an opus of the venerable old firm of William Hill & Son, was expertly played by the church organist, John Peace.

Did anything distract you?

Yes, the chill of the building because the heating is broken down and awaiting a part. I was aware of my steamy breath.

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

I found it a friendly, old fashioned high church, with plenty of Anglo-Catholic style hijinks. However, with the priest's back to the congregation during mass, it was difficult to catch what he was saying. I don't think there was a PA system.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

18 minutes.

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

8 – The vicar was very easy to listen to. I could have done with a bit more. I was pleased to see him leap to his feet and eagerly bound up the pulpit steps, a sight not often seen in high church circles (where priests usually prefer to use the missal stand). However, his voice went up at the end of every sentence and he had a slight problem with pronunciation of certain words. He also suffered from a lack of volume and had a tendency to gabble at times. (Voice coach, Father?)

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

In a nutshell: the Beatitudes. We are all called to be saints, but are we really holy? When you don't have the things you need, you think you are poor. And you have the same need for spiritual things as for material things. So when you are poor in spirit, you are hungry and thirsty for righteousness as you are for food.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

Seeing the thick smoke in the sanctuary rising through shafts of sunlight up into the firmament!

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

The broken-down heating system. Boy, was it cold in there!

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

I was approached by a man from the congregation: "Are you coming through for a cup of coffee? You are very welcome." The parish rooms adjoin the church.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Ordinary tea and instant coffee: "Help yourself!" Cups and saucers, an assortment of biscuits. It was not fair trade, but most welcome!

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

9 – I would be happy to attend St John's on a regular basis.

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

Very much so. I thoroughly enjoyed the service and the friendly atmosphere. I felt like I had really been to church.

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

The shafts of sunlight piercing through the stained glass windows as we processed round singing "For all the Saints", swathed in incense.

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