St John-at-Hampstead, Hampstead, London


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St John-at-Hampstead
Location: Hampstead, London
Date of visit: Sunday, 10 August 2014, 10:30am

The building

The earliest church on the site dates from 1312, but by 1744 it had become derelict and was declared unusable. The present church dates from 1747 and was enlarged in 1843. Further extensions were added in 1877-78 and again in 1911-12. Still, it is not enormous by American standards. The interior was redone in 1958. The beautiful stained glass dates from the 1877-78 renovations; a campaign is currently underway to fund their restoration.

The church

They sponsor reading, drama and music groups and support several charitable causes. Each Sunday there is morning prayer as well as two eucharistic services, plus choral evensong. During the week there is morning and evening prayer each day, with holy communion on Wednesdays and "Holy Hamsters" (a children's service) on Thursdays.

The neighborhood

The Hampstead area of London has some of the most expensive housing in all of London and is known for its intellectual, liberal, artistic, musical and literary associations. The rambling, hilly Hampstead Heath is one of London's most well-known parks and includes ponds, woodlands and a swimming pool among its other attractions. The spectacular view of London from Parliament Hill within the park is protected by law.

The cast

The Revd Diana Young, curate, the Revd Jan Rushton, associate priest.

What was the name of the service?

Sung Eucharist and Sermon.

How full was the building?

Less than half full – perhaps 100 people.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Yes. An elderly lady asked my husband if he would like to read the parish magazine.

Was your pew comfortable?

Reasonably. A very tall person might have had trouble.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

A little frantic. It was pouring buckets of rain. Everyone drifted in, wet or shaking off umbrellas, and sat down without greeting anybody. A general muttering arose regarding the fact that the organist had not shown up – what if he didn't come at all? But in the end he did.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

Cannot recall, but it was the standard opening line of the eucharist service.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Hymn book (words only), music of the sung portions of the liturgy, a separate sheet for the readings and texts of the day, and then the actual worship leaflet – many items to juggle!

What musical instruments were played?

Organ, a Henry Willis instrument dating from 1884 (Willis himself was organist at St John's from 1852 to 1859). It was rebuilt in 1930 by Willis’ successors, and again in 1964 by Harrison & Harrison Ltd of Durham. In 1996 the Norfolk firm of Bower & Company was retained to restore as far as possible the original Willis sound.

Did anything distract you?

I was sitting all the way at the back, and I could not make out the three figures in the stained glass above the altar. I could recognize Christ in the centre, but who were the other two? What with the long hair and the robes they might even be girls with bad fashion sense. Luckily, as I approached the altar to take communion, I could see better – it was John the Baptist on the left, and John the Evangelist on the right.

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

Extremely restrained and dignified. Also (when you consider it was in mid-August when everyone was on holiday, and not a major feast) quite elaborate. Collars and cuffs on the crucifer, two candle holders and another acolyte to hold the Bible up. Lots of side boys and bit players on the team. If it's like this in the summer, Christmas must be like fireworks!

Exactly how long was the sermon?

15 minutes.

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

4 – The Revd Diana Young's style was extremely cool, intellectual and dignified. No thumping of pulpit here; no trace of passion.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

It revolved around the three texts for the day: 1 Kings 19:9-18 (Elijah encounters the Lord while seeking refuge in a cave); Romans 10:5-15 (all who confess Jesus as Lord will be saved); and Matthew 14:22-33 (Jesus walks on water) – all three being about the stresses of life. The sermon was about how to cope with stress.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The gloriously elaborate vaulting and gilding of the ceiling. Gracious me, they could show devoutness in woodwork in those days.

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

The seemingly dour mood of everyone as they came in out of the rain. Only people who were actually running the service talked to each other, at least before the service. Perhaps we were all supposed to focus on the divine.

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

An elderly lady grabbed us and guided us around the corner of the building past some truly dire looking graves and tombs and down into the crypt (quite a nice space), where there were coffee and biscuits. These (or was it the service?) seemed to dispel everyone's dour mood, and we found the atmosphere here very friendly and outgoing.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Coffee quite good; biscuits looked like they were straight from the packet.

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

3 – I'd have to hear the vicar. This was August, when the choir were off to the shore and the vicar was on holiday. Quite young children were pressed into service to take up the collection and do other bits of that sort. All the second string and understudies did OK, but clearly one would have to see the main team.

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


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

The quite little children helping with the service, passing the baskets and so forth. So cute!

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