Mystery Worshipper: Roundabout
Church: St John's
Location: North Baddesley, Hampshire, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 4 June 2006, 6:00pm
The church stands in the middle of Hampshire countryside, backing onto rolling hills and fronting onto a fairly busy road. It is very small – according to their website, the church is less than 55 feet long and only 16 feet wide. The architecture mostly dates back to the middle ages, when the church was probably part of a larger settlement home for the Knights Hospitallers (see below). Inside, there is a tiny gallery at the rear, and the nave is separated from the chancel by a screen dating from c.1600. The sanctuary is dominated by a huge 17th century memorial which is entirely disproportionate to the size and style of the rest of the church. The parish's website gives many more details and even a virtual tour for those more interested.
Every Sunday, St John's hosts an early morning communion service (Common Worship) and evening service (BCP evensong or a monthly Common Worship eucharist). The main Sunday services take place elsewhere in the benefice. The website describes the various social activities, home study groups, and other ministries engaged in.
According to a conversation I had with one of the clergy, the most recent census identified North Baddesley as very demographically representative of Britain. The absence of non-Christian places of worship, however, points to the village's dependence on nearby Southampton as a focus of leisure, work and cultural activities. In the late 14th century the village was headquarters to the Knights of St John of Jerusalem, also known as the Knights Hospitallers. Indeed, St John's Church is named in honour of St John the Baptist, patron saint of the Knights. A large population growth in the twentieth century (the village now has around 7000 residents) saw the relocation of the village centre about a mile away, together with a new church. Today, St John's nearest neighbours are farms and the old manor house. The pretty location, however, clearly attracts those with more long-term interests, and it has a thriving churchyard awash with flowers.
The Rev. Paul Sherwood, curate, celebrated the eucharist, assisted by Ms Sally Kerson, reader, and an unnamed thurifer.
What was the name of the service?Sung Communion
How full was the building?
I counted, I think, 18 including the organist and sanctuary party. In a church in which fitting 80 would be a squeeze, this did not feel at all empty.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Books had been left on the font and I took them and found a pew. No personal welcomes – but to be honest, this was not an atmosphere for chatty welcomes and there was no space for a sidesperson to stand without getting in the way!
Was your pew comfortable?
It was a wooden pew which could, looking at the batteredness of it, tell a story or two. Perfectly comfortable for an hour.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The organ played quiety and a bell chimed as I entered the building. All the congregation were seated and most were in silence until the service began. Any whispered conversations were audible to the rest of the congregation, which probably deterred gossiping.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"The Lord be with you."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
New English Hymnal and an in-house folder containing printouts of the eucharist. There were a few eucharist services to choose from, and no direction was given, but it was clear that everyone else was turning to the white pages so I followed suit.
What musical instruments were played?
Organ, played pleasingly well, particularly given the evening timing and the small congregation.
Did anything distract you?
I sat directly under the edge of the gallery, and a rather large but rather dead spider dangled above my head. That distracted the mind a little.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Now here was a surprise: I was in a mood where I wanted a Pentecost service that could guarantee both quiet and tradition – which was what I got. But I wasn't expecting this sleepy country church to have an evening service with an eastward-facing celebration, eight candles on the altar plus two at a side setup, as well as a hefty dose of incense. Lovely stuff!
Exactly how long was the sermon?
Well, I noted the starting time, but I was so engrossed in it that I forgot to stop counting. Judging by when the service ended, I imagine it was between 10 and 12 minutes long.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – The reader, Sally Kerson, preached. And another pleasant surprise: Her sermon was clear, lucid, had an easy to understand message, and was delivered eloquently. Had she made a touch more eye contact with the congregation, I might have even got as far as awarding an 8.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Linking her sermon to the two doves living in the church porch, she spoke about the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, looking at what the church was, and is, and how we should continually seek to use the gift of the Spirit. Listening to the still small voice of God, listening to people, and communicating within church is a necessary part of our church life together, even if sometimes we're not very good at it.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Singing Pentecost hymns in an incense-filled church on a sunny summer evening really lifted my spirits heavenward that day. "Oh, you're all God-ed up" was my agnostic partner's response on my return home – and he was right.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Sitting beneath the spider wasn't exactly my idea of heaven. If that was the size of the dead ones, I was wondering what size of spider could be running over my feet.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
A few people almost made half-eye contact as they left the church and I sat in my pew, but there was no direct conversation. It was dangerously close to looking like a no-acknowledgement-of-strangers-here moment, which would be a shame as I'd enjoyed myself up to that point. However, on leaving the door I was caught by the reader and introduced to the curate, and we chatted for about 10 minutes about various things. However, I think that had I wanted to escape quietly (as I know that some people do), they'd have been tactful enough to let me go.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
It was an evening service with no refreshments. The glass of wine greeting me on my return home was probably far nicer than anything they could have offered anyway.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – Well, that's a funny thing. In my more spiritual moments I am looking for a church home, and this might just fit the bill.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, undoubtedly so.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The incense. I've been stuck in middle-of-the-road churches for a lifetime, and it was nice to see it being used.