St John the Evangelist, Edinburgh, Scotland

St John’s, Edinburgh, Scotland


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Mystery Worshipper: Fisher
Church: St John’s
Location: Edinburgh, Scotland
Date of visit: Sunday, 2 April 2006, 10:30am

The building

One of several very pretty Gothic revival churches in Edinburgh, St John's is a distinctive and prominent part of the central Edinburgh landscape. The exterior appears narrow due to the elongated nave. The inside has been recently redone and is simply splendid! The walls are lined with monuments to Victorian army officers. One's eye is drawn to spiral patterns in the vaulted ceiling and a large suspended cross in front of the chancel, as well as to an ornate reredos backing the altar. The apse features some magnificent stained glass depicting Christ in glory. It was the stained glass and how the sun shining through set the building awash in colour, plus the effects of a lovely warm, bright spring day, that put me in a most ethereal mood – although I'll have more to say about those wall monuments later.

The church

St John's takes its community very seriously. The notice board outside, as well as the service sheet and their website, all announce the church's mission statement: "St John's, by the grace of the Spirit, seeks to be an open community, walking in the way of Jesus, engaging with an ever-changing world and living a faith that is timeless yet contemporary, thoughtful and compassionate." This is lived out through a variety of activities: provocative murals facing Princes Street; a fair trade shop, bookshop, cafe, and Peace and Justice centre under the church, and plenty more.

The neighborhood

On one side, Edinburgh Castle and its crag loom over the church; on the other, traffic roars past along Princes Street, the main shopping street. This is a generally affluent part of the city centre, apart from the slightly grubby clubs along nearby Lothian Road.

The cast

The celebrant was the Rev. Donald Reid, associate rector. The sermon was given by the rector, the Rev. Dr John Armes.

What was the name of the service?

Sung Eucharist

How full was the building?

The building was a little over half full, with around 150 people. As no one sat in the left hand aisle, it looked fuller. The congregation were predominantly wealthy and over fifty – something I'm not used to.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

I was briefly welcomed at the door and handed service sheets.

Was your pew comfortable?

Narrow but perfectly comfortable padded pew and a good kneeler.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

I'm afraid I can't say. I arrived on time according to my watch, but the service had already started.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

A variety of service sheets and booklets, all quite clear and nicely done, provided most of the text and rubrics. Hymns Ancient and Modern, 1983 edition, was used for the hymns, which tended to be more ancient than modern.

What musical instruments were played?

A good, loud organ accompanied the hymns and most of the responses. A choir led the singing and sang two motets during communion.

Did anything distract you?

People seemed to be changing their posture at odd times. Some people knelt for the prayers of the faithful, then everyone stood up for the eucharistic prayer. At the Lord's Prayer some knelt, some sat. I tried to be as undemonstrative as possible in adjusting my customary ways to the local tradition, but generally ended up doing the opposite of everyone else. To top it all off, the pew was quite narrow and my legs are quite long, so they kept getting tangled up with kneelers, handbags, people in the row behind, etc. This was probably as distracting for everyone else as it was for me!

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

The style was formal and fairly high Anglican without being excessive or self-conscious. The most striking break with tradition was that in lieu of the creed we recited Philippians 2:6-11.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

16 minutes.

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

7 – The rector spoke clearly and delivered a well-prepared sermon on a topic that has apparently caused some consternation among the people. I did feel, though, that his language occasionally lapsed into politically fashionable jargon.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Plans are underway to expand the church building. Do not be afraid to feel proud of the building and the community it enables, or to feel ambitious for the future. Physical space can play an important role in shaping spirituality.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The whole service was an enjoyable and energising sensory experience. The light, colours, spiral-patterned vaulted ceiling, and vigorous music all contributed to a most heavenly feeling.

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

The monuments to Victorian army officers prominently list their battle honours. These monuments are as integral a part of the building as everything else, but I thought they rather jarred both with the current spirit of the place and with my own attitudes.

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

We were all encouraged to go to the hall for coffee, and so I did. After standing around rather awkwardly for several minutes – I'm not very good at polite post-church small talk – I was approached by a friendly choir member and we chatted a bit.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There was decent, strong, black coffee in proper cups and saucers. And of course it was fairly traded.

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

6 – There are many admirable and attractive things about St John's. I'm very sympathetic to their aim of working through relatively traditional forms to create a living community that is fully engaged with the world around it. But my one hesitation, and it's a common issue for liberalism in general, is that the inclusive message is slightly at odds, I thought, with the apparently rather patrician congregation – why hasn't so inclusive a church attracted a more socially and ethnically diverse crowd? Nevertheless, should I decide to attend a church other than Roman Catholic, St John's would be high on my list.

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

Very much so! No Lenten austerity and gloom here.

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

How colourful everything was.

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