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  1074: St John's, West Ealing, London

St John’s, West Ealing, London

Mystery Worshipper: Super Hank Petram.
The church: St John's, West Ealing, London.
Denomination: Church of England.
The building: St John's is a substantial Victorian brick building in the early Gothic style. Entering the west door you expect to find the nave, but instead find yourself in a lounge with kitchen, office and bookshop: the result of 1970s remodelling. The church proper begins beyond this with glass doors into the truncated nave. The interior is plain but light and bright, with white-washed walls and minimal decorative elements. The crypt was also remodelled in the 1970s and there's now a large meeting space with rooms off it as well as a kitchen and a small charity shop.
The church community: As well as three Anglican services on Sundays, St John's hosts both the Living Water Arabic Church and the Myanmar Christian Fellowship. The church is also a community resource. "Snips", a café and support group for parents and young children, is held twice a week. An inter-church soup kitchen is run at weekends.
The neighbourhood: The residents of Ealing are diverse in their socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds. This part of Ealing does not appear to be economically thriving: a five-minute walk along the main road revealed five Pound Shops and two pawnbrokers. The housing in the immediate neighbourhood is very varied and ranges from social housing to Edwardian semis to very large detached houses.
The cast: The service was led by Mark Parsons, co-ordinator of administration, and Rev. Will Donaldson, the vicar, gave the talk.

What was the name of the service?
STJOHNS@SIX. This is a new service which has only been running for a few weeks.

How full was the building?
No more than 30 people were at the service in a building which can accommodate many times this (the morning congregation apparently numbers several hundred). Despite this, the church didn't feel empty. We all sat in the front few rows and the leader and preacher stood only a few feet in front, making a large space feel surprisingly intimate.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
Having taken a seat, I was approached by the vicar. I initially assumed I'd been "outed" as a Mystery Worshipper, but as he subsequently repeated this with other newcomers, I realised that he was by nature welcoming. I was joined in my row by another congregant who introduced herself and engaged me in conversation before the service. When we split into small groups during the service, my neighbour asked me to join her group and the members of the group took care to ask my name and shake my hand.

Was your pew comfortable?
St John's doesn't have pews, instead there are attractive light-wood chairs with padded fabric. These weren't as comfortable as they looked: the service lasted less than an hour and towards the end I was aware of the seating.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
I arrived seven minutes before the scheduled start of the service. At that point the worship band was finishing practising and the woman operating the audio-visual system was in place. The church was otherwise deserted, although the lounge which I had come through was lively. Other congregants arrived after me. My neighbour engaged me in lively conversation, so that I barely noticed the service starting.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good evening and welcome to STJOHNS@SIX, or St John's at six minutes after six."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
Bible texts and worship songs were projected onto a screen. New International Version Bibles were available in the seat backs.

What musical instruments were played?
Keyboard, guitar, bass, drums.

Did anything distract you?
After the worship band had performed, they seemed to disappear. I worried that they'd all gone on an extended cigarette break to avoid the vicar's sermon, and feared for myself. The band re-formed for the closing hymn and it became clear that the members had simply dispersed among the congregation.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Gentle happy clappy. The service did not include many formal elements: no fixed liturgy, no vestments, and not even a dog collar. After the sermon, we divided into small groups to discuss ideas raised and to pray together. The leader was careful to recognise that this might be awkward for some and was sensitive in organising this.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
14 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – The sermon was a repeat of the morning's which had preceded the APCM and was written to address that. Naturally, it was aimed at the regular congregation and so was at times less engaging for a visitor. The vicar used a Powerpoint presentation to illustrate the talk, and as the screen was some distance above him and positioned for a standing and not sitting congregation, I found I either followed him or the screen. Both the content and the format seemed at times more suited to a business presentation, but I think this was because of the particular needs of the occasion.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
There was a preamble in which the vicar reminded us that the general election was two weeks away. He suggested a book – VoteWise – which might help in deciding for whom to vote. The rest of the sermon used the reading from the book of Revelation as a starting point to consider a vision for St John's in 2010. The talk addressed the challenges to St John's as a church, and to its individual members.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
During the sermon, listening to the vicar as he reflected on what St John's is already doing was a revelation, to me at least. The church and its members are extraordinarily committed in both their faith and good works. The church is very well attended (though not yet in the evenings), and this is an active congregation which organises many activities for the church, and reaching wide out into the community.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
St John's appears to be very politically engaged. The sermon suggested that a response to the challenge we face as individuals might be to become a local councillor. As part of the service, a member of the congregation gave an update on the Make Poverty History campaign and said, "I'm not going to tell you how to vote, but..." – stressing fair trade, not free trade. I found this refreshing and exciting, but I am confident that my home parish would not share my feelings.

If intercessory prayers were said, what issues were raised?
No intercessions.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I didn't have an opportunity to look lost as my neighbour invited me to have coffee. Members of my small group and others came to talk to me. Everyone was extremely friendly, open and approachable. A very successful balance was struck between engaging and involving me but not asking intrusive questions or trying to sign me up for lots of activities.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There were large mugs of coffee and assorted soft drinks (I had some delicious cloudy lemonade). There were also plenty of large cookies, which I didn't sample, but looked great. I tried to make a contribution to the coffee fund, but was told there wasn't one.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 – I have a commitment to my regular church. If I did not, I would not hesitate in attending this church.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, very much. It also made me challenge my understanding of what being a Christian entails.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
That not only can church be more than just a Sunday social club, but in St John's case it is.
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