St John the Evangelist, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada

St John the Evangelist, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St John the Evangelist
Location: Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Date of visit: Sunday, 12 April 2009, 11:00am

The building

St John's is a big, brick barn of a late Victorian building from the outside. The interior is quite lovely, not obviously modernised beyond a free-standing altar. It's a light and airy take on the plaster-and-dark wood Victorian Neogothic which is more typical in Anglican churches hereabouts; in fact, the rounded arches of exposed brick around the windows lend a rather Romanesque look. A retirement home of roughly the same dimensions as the church building is physically connected to the church and intimately connected with the parish.

The church

The parish appears to own the aforementioned retirement home. They also support several charities (I believe that I recall mention of a food bank and men's shelter, as one could expect), and host Bible studies and prayer groups (not what one would necessarily expect). There are three choirs (junior, intermediate and adult) but apparently no Sunday school (more about that later). No mausoleum for the blue-haired set is St John's. The bulletin refers to the parish as a "safe place." I'm not quite sure what that means – code for gay friendly or seeker friendly? It is certainly a family friendly church, judging by the abundance of young families in the pews.

The neighborhood

The Locke Street area was once a respectable mix of working-class and middle-class homes straddling a commercial street, all bordering the former industrial lands at the edge of the city. The neighbourhood took a dive before becoming the slightly gay and mostly gentrified mix of family homes, the odd rental unit, and boutiques and shops that it is today. St John's is one of four prominent churches along a two-block stretch of Locke North (only eight short blocks altogether), the others being Roman Catholic, Baptist and United.

The cast

The bulletin named a cast of 30. I will name only the Revd David J. Anderson, rector, who was celebrant and homilist, and Mr Simon Irving, organist and choirmaster.

What was the name of the service?

Holy Eucharist

How full was the building?

Mostly full – it was Easter morning, after all. There were at least 150 in the pews and another 50 in the chancel, between the three choirs and clergy and such.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

I was wished a happy Easter a few times by fellow worshippers on the way in and by the woman at the entrance to the sanctuary who handed me a bulletin.

Was your pew comfortable?

It was a wooden pew with drop-down kneelers and about as comfortable as one might expect such a thing to be.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

It was casual and chatty but not boisterous.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Good morning. Christ is risen. Alleluia!" said the woman whose role was billed as "Invitation to Worship." This greeting preceded a brief sort of mini sermon. Altogether something new to me.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The bulletin contained the text of the service, which was a slight rearrangement of the text of the eucharist from the Book of Alternative Services. The "old" (1971) hymnal, found in the pews, was used. There was also a bespoke songbook in the pews, but we used it only for the musical setting for the mass text.

What musical instruments were played?

There was a respectable organ, a brass quartet with timpani, and a bell choir of three children. As I sat down, I eyed with some alarm a drum kit behind the pulpit, but it didn't come into play.

Did anything distract you?

Did I use the phrase "family friendly?" Did I mention that there was no Sunday school? There were young boys before, behind and beside me, so that meant no end of fidgeting, whispering, kicking and clattering – even though these were reasonably well behaved children.

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

It was a casual take on traditional Anglican liturgy, nothing stiff but nothing too sloppy. So on the one hand, a mostly sung liturgy, gospel read from the nave, full-voiced singing of favourite Easter hymns, and no clapping even after the bell-choir performed. But on the other, modern language, "open hospitality" at the altar, a mildly perambulatory peace.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

16 minutes.

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

7 – In these days of hyperbolic praise, I should note that I consider 7 to mean a good preacher. I intend no slight to Father Anderson – I just need my socks knocked off a little bit before I get to an 8.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The rector preached on the gospel text, Mark 16:1-8, which tells the story of the women going to Jesus' tomb and finding it empty, much to their amazement and alarm. We make a mistake to look for Jesus in the past, where we think he was. For Jesus has gone before us. We live not in alarm but in hope and expectation because Christ is in our future. Great things await as as we go forth to meet him.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

Singing traditional hymns on Easter Sunday, with the pews and choir stalls filled with young families and their children.

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

Being surrounded by children – grumpish semi-atheist that I am, uncharitable thoughts kept intruding on my struggling attempts at prayer and worship.

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

I wandered over to the coffee cart in the small lobby. There, I spoke briefly with a woman who guided me through the carafes and handed me a slice of tasty coffee cake. I then fingered the nearby pamphlets and such for two minutes. Finally I scampered. I really must steel myself for this part and don't particularly like it.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

I wouldn't come back just for the coffee, which was served in a styrofoam cup and was not so tasty as the cake.

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

7 – If I lived in the parish, I would without question make this my regular church. The liturgy may not be just what I perfectly love, but it's a living Anglican parish with people of all ages and thriving choirs and a very natural feel to it. And I will happily visit again now and again, too – their 11.00am service time is rather appealing in a city in which 10.00 or 10.30 is the Anglican norm.

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

It made me think for a time that I might, after all, be a Christian, so that's something.

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

How surprisingly disappointed I was when Father Anderson omitted the Easter greeting ... and how happy I was when he acknowledged the omission and slipped it in later. "The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!"

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