St John sub Castro, Lewes, East Sussex

St John sub Castro, Lewes, East Sussex, England


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Mystery Worshipper: Jacobsen
Church: St John sub Castro
Location: Lewes, East Sussex, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 9 August 2009, 8:00am

The building

A gloriously castellated 19th century church of flint and brick construction – materials typical of the area. The site was originally occupied by an 11th century church, some remains of which can be seen in the churchyard. Inside, once you're through the lobby painted a horrible peach colour, you find yourself in a dignified church with a heavily timbered roof, a small chancel, and large side galleries. There is some Victorian stained glass and traditional gold heavy embroidered altar cloths.

The church

There is plenty of evidence in the form of toys, drawings and books that this is a lively church catering to all ages.

The neighborhood

Lewes has historically been a centre of rebellion and dissent. Lewes Castle, dating from the time of William the Conqueror, stands on high ground with a good view of the area. The words "sub castro" in the church's name refer to its location "beneath the castle." Lewes glories in its celebrations of Bonfire Night (the annual commemoration of the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605) with torch lit processions, crow scarers and burnings in effigy. It is home to Harveys Brewery, maker of several traditional English beers, and has two folk clubs and a thriving folk music scene.

The cast

The Revd Martin Sully, vicar.

What was the name of the service?

Holy Communion (Book of Common Prayer)

How full was the building?

Five, including myself.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

I arrived 15 minutes early to an open but empty church. I picked up a Prayer Book and parish magazine from the table where theyd been laid out in preparation, and went to examine the church library collection. The vicar came out to light the candles and, upon spotting me, came down to shake hands, say hello and ask me my name. He told me that the congregation usually sat in the choir stalls for this service and that others would be coming.

Was your pew comfortable?

The choir stalls were very narrow front to back, and I found it more comfortable to sit at an angle. The pews in the nave had individual cushions to soften the effect of unrelieved wood.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Quiet and devotional. The other four attendees came in and mostly prayed until the service began.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Our Father, who art in heaven ..." (The Lords Prayer).

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Book of Common Prayer (1662 version with 1968 revisions). The choir stalls also contained Hymns Ancient and Modern Revised, 100 Favourite Hymns, and a psalter.

What musical instruments were played?

There was no music at this service.

Did anything distract you?

The pew. Also, the vicar seemed to be using a different version of the Prayer Book than those provided for the congregation. His seemed to have slightly more modern language. This was particularly noticeable in the readings.

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

This was a simple and dignified service that followed the traditional pattern. The atmosphere was accepting and intimate, and the pace unhurried.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

5 minutes.

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

7 – The vicar's delivery, as throughout the service, was clear and unpretentious.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

He began with a reference to how St Augustine had heard a voice telling him to read St Paul's Epistle to the Romans, and how, as his eyes fell upon Paul's admonition to clothe oneself with Christ, Augustine's life was changed. He then went on to elaborate on the idea of demonstrating our Christianity in our daily lives.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The simplicity and clear delivery of the service. It had an inclusive effect. Being a stranger in such a small group could have been isolating, but this wasnt.

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

Not being used to the Book of Common Prayer, I was at first confused by the discrepancies between what I was reading and what I was hearing. Also, the parish magazine announced today to be the eighth Sunday after Trinity, but I knew it to be the ninth. Had we read the correct readings for the day? No one else seemed to be aware of the discrepancy, and it certainly didnt detract from the quality of the service.

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

I didnt have time to look lost. My neighbour in the choir stalls introduced herself and explained that this was the vicars last Sunday and that this would be the last eight oclock service, as the priest covering for him already had a parish and wouldnt be able to get to St John's at that hour. She also said that there was a farewell tea party and other festivities planned for later in the day.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

But alas, no farewell tea or anything else at this service!

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

7 – I would need to attend more services in order to explore the workings of this particular church. Perhaps after its period of upheaval has subsided. But today's atmosphere was extremely welcoming.

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 lovely embroidery on the altar frontal. Obviously old, and in need of slight repair, but beautiful. You can't keep an ex costumier down.

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