|1123: St John the Evangelist, Upper Norwood, London|
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|Mystery Worshipper: dj_ordinaire.
The church: St John the Evangelist, Upper Norwood, London.
Denomination: Church of England.
The building: St John’s was described by one admirer as “the noblest structure ever raised since the Reformation,” which may be over-egging the pudding somewhat, but the 19th century Gothic architect J L Pearson’s fine work of 1878 remains extremely handsome. The whole impression is of a building without fuss. Fashioned out of red brick and Dover stone, the church is large and wide with a shallow chancel and transepts. The interior is dominated by Pearson’s immense decorated screen and lit by high clerestory windows with attractive Y-tracery. The flamboyant Anglo-Catholic architect Sir Ninian Comper worshipped here for some years and added a fine rose window and gorgeous sanctuary lamp, although he seems never to have gotten around to covering all the statuary with gilt paint, which was his usual modus operandi. Perhaps the churchwardens fought him off. There is also a statue of Our Lady by the noted church furnisher Martin Travers. On my visit, a veiled cross was suspended from the ceiling and the south aisle was covered in sheeting due to crumbling masonry. I saw just two rather forlorn stations of the cross, suggesting that they may have been "retired."
The church: A good mix of ages and ethnic groups. Low mass, high mass and evensong are offered each Sunday. St John’s is one of the “Churches Together in Upper Norwood,” meeting regularly with churches of other denominations. Traditionally Anglo-Catholic, events about to transpire suggested that St John's may be moving "down the candle," although adverts for a rosary service to mark "Mary's month of May" and a solemn high mass with carpet of flowers for Corpus Christi would seem to suggest otherwise.
The neighbourhood: Upper Norwood is a suburb of South London, and it appeared verdant and prosperous in the bright morning sun of Pentecost Sunday.
The cast: he Rev. Andrew Wilson presided, and the preacher was the Rev. Beverly Mason, vicar. Oh, and not to forget Sammy, a small boy wearing a paper mitre for reasons which will become clear presently.
|What was the name of the service?
Sung Eucharist for the feast of Pentecost.
How full was the building?
About 130, including a large choir and sanctuary party – enough to feel tolerably full. However, the guidebook recalls that evensong on the day of the church's dedication attracted a congregation of 2000, so this congregation could hardly be called capacity!
Did anyone welcome you personally?
A friendly "good morning" as I took my hymn book, order of service (Common Worship order one, modern language) and fliers for Christian Aid week and the church jumble sale.
Was your pew comfortable?
The chair was not uncomfortable.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
A sign suggesting that silence be kept before mass was, in the main, observed, although there was a little reverential bustle that I found quite welcome.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
Mother Beverly began with "Good morning and welcome," which she repeated after remembering to turn on her microphone. I was surprised to see that there was no procession; rather, the entrance was in the Roman sequence (thurifer leading, celebrant terminating), albeit with a blue-gowned verger leading the clergy. The choir were robed in quite a mish-mash of vestments, some in mauve cassocks, others in terribly mean little cottas.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The New English Hymnal, an order of service, and a notice sheet with readings and the music.
What musical instruments were played?
A glorious organ that really came into its own during the final voluntary (Clarke's Trumpet Minuet).
Did anything distract you?
I quickly decided that I recognised Father Andrew from somewhere, and about halfway through the proceedings it suddenly struck me that he was the spitting image of Charlie Higson from the Fast Show, a comic sketch television programme. If it hadn't been for more numerous distractions in the form of the fine preaching and wonderful mass setting (John Ireland's Mass in C), I might well have spent the rest of the service happily imagining the service being celebrated by Swiss Tony, the fast-talking car salesman who was one of Charlie Higson's many characters.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Hmmm. Rather on the Catholic side of Anglicanism, although with a decidedly offbeat streak. The celebrant wore a most decent red chasuble in the Gothic cut (the orphreys slighted faded) over the ubiquitous cassock-alb. The vicar, however, preached in a rainbow-coloured stole, a vestment that I had previously taken to be an urban legend. There were vast clouds of incense and bells at both the consecration and the epiclesis (which they had decided to include at a rather curious place). The customary Regina Coeli at the end was replaced with a single Hail Mary, which I hadn't encountered before.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – Very vibrant, delivered without notes from in front of the nave altar. Mother Beverly brandished a red pompom, which she postulated was representative of tongues of fire. Well, why not? Overall the sermon impressed me greatly, and I would have given it a 9 if there hadn't been a few unneccesary detours.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Mother spoke of the work of the Holy Spirit throughout the Old Testament, together with the risks of being a prophet, culminating in the Pentecostal miracle. God gave us the very spirit of his being – but how many of us are as excited about this as we should be? To connect the idea of prophecy with the mission of the church, she summoned Sammy – the small boy with the paper mitre – and repeated the claim that the mitre's shape suggests lambent tongues of flame (which I don't believe for one minute, but there we go).
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Most directly, the choir's wonderful rendition of the Agnus Dei. More indirectly, I was delighted to find an Anglo-Catholic church that embraces the ordination of women, although I learned from talking to people after the service that some of their number fled without even waiting to meet Mother Beverly after her appointment was announced, which I find a crying shame.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
No psalm! What in blazes . . . !?
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
t was friendly without being intrusive. Father Andrew greeted me and I chatted with a few other people over tea whilst I lit some candles and looked around the building.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Fair trade tea from a proper pot, in a proper cup. The fairy cake was nice too (just as well as it had to serve as my breakfast).
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 – If I lived in South London, I doubt I'd be able to keep away!
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
Father Swiss Tony, I should think.