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1611: St John's, Buxton, Derbyshire, England
St John's, Buxton, England
Mystery Worshipper: Chris Teean.
The church: St John's, Buxton, England.
Denomination: Church of England, Diocese of Derby.
The building: It is a rather large awesome looking church adjacent to a busy main road. The church was built in 1811 in a neo-classical Tuscan style. The light sandstone building is large, squat and square, with a bell tower and eastern style dome. There are pleasant gardens to the front and side as well as a small car park. On entering, we passed tables laden with refreshments and then came in to the main body of the church, which is large and square. The altar is at the front with an organ to the left of it and a pulpit to the right. There are many pleasant stained glass windows that allow plenty of light in. The history of the building is described in great detail on their website.
The church: St John's is one of six churches comprising Buxton parish, and it seems to attract a large number of visitors. There are regular Sunday and weekday services at all the churches, and a sung eucharist is celebrated at St John's every Sunday. Among the parish societies are men's and women's groups and a walking group. The St John's Festival Organ Recitals programme affords the public an opportunity to hear the church's magnificent instrument as played by organ scholars from Oxford and Cambridge.
The neighbourhood: Buxton is a town in Derbeyshire known since Roman times for its geothermal springs, said to have curative powers. Beginning in the late 18th century and extending into the early 20th century, the town was developed into a spa to rival Bath, with many striking works of architecture. The Pavilion Gardens contains 23 acres of gardens and ponds. The opera house has been restored and hosts an annual Gilbert and Sullivan festival as well as concerts by the likes of the Stranglers and Boy George. The church is across the road from the opera house and the Pavilion Gardens, so probably has connections with the world of entertainment.
The cast: The Revd Stephen Shipley officiated, and the preacher was the Revd Dr Ian Bradley.
The date & time: 17 August 2008, 11.00am.

What was the name of the service?
A service of thanksgiving for the lives of WS Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan.

How full was the building?
The building seemed to be pretty full on the ground floor and there were a lot of people in the gallery as well. I would say the age of the congregation was predominantly 60+ although there were some younger people and some children. There was a mixture of smart and casual dress, although please remember that most of the congregation were likely to be visitors because of the Gilbert and Sullivan festival.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
Sadly no one welcomed us personally, but maybe because it was not one of their regular services. We helped ourselves to service sheets and envelopes for taxpayers to use for donations. Later a cheerful lady came around distributing these envelopes and seemed pleased we had already found them.

Was your pew comfortable?
The church was set out with very comfortable chairs placed in rows. However, they were tightly packed together, and although kneelers were provided I could see it would be difficult to use them when all the chairs were occupied. We had arrived early so I was able to kneel to pray.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
It could not be described as reverential because the early arrivals were asked if they would like to volunteer to practise Sir Arthur Sullivan's Jubilate Deo, with the Revd Stephen Shipley conducting. Whilst we practised, the rest of the congregation filed in.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"It's a great delight to be with you for this thanksgiving service for the lives of WS Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
We had a specially printed service sheet.

What musical instruments were played?
Organ and piano.

Did anything distract you?
It was rather cold in the church.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
This was not an ordinary weekly service so I imagine the intention was that the worship should be very neutral. The clergy did not wear vestments. Everyone sat to pray (there was no alternative!). There was no sign of the cross in the pardon and just a glimmer of one in the blessing. All in all, it came across to me as very low church. The readings were delivered clearly and the prayers of intercession were read beautifully.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
Sorry, I forgot to time it, but I would say about 10 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
3 – Apart from a couple of quotes, the Revd Dr Bradley concentrated on Sullivan and had little to say about Gilbert. It was rather like an academic lecture.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
He took as his text Luke 15:11-32, the parable of the prodigal son. He linked the parable to Sullivan's upbringing and his subsequent composition of the oratorio The Prodigal Son. He made references to Henri Nouwen's book, The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming and Rembrandt's painting as well.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The singing of Sullivan's Jubilate Deo.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The man in front of me placed his large coat over the back of his chair – so there was definitely no chance of kneeling!

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I suspect most of the congregation were visitors who were attending the three week International Gilbert and Sullivan festival that was being held at the opera house. No one spoke to me, most of them being in their own little groups.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
It was excellent. There was a choice of tea or coffee in cups and saucers as well as a lovely selection of home made cakes and biscuits. The ladies serving them seemed very friendly and I am sure would have engaged in conversation had they not been so busy.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 – I would have to attend a "normal" service before making a decision.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Definitely, although in a sort of Victorian way!

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
Singing Jubilate Deo.
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