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3015: St John the Evangelist, Taunton, England
St John the Evangelist, Taunton (Exterior)
Mystery Worshipper: Liddell and Scott,
The church: St John the Evangelist, Taunton, Somerset, England.
Denomination: Church of England, Diocese of Bath & Wells.
The building: Dating from 1863, it is a sumptuous grade 1 listed church by the noted Gothic Revivalist Sir George Gilbert Scott, who also designed the Albert Memorial, St Pancras Station, and innumerable workhouses. The style is highly elaborate, featuring a four bay nave, advanced chancel, north and south aisles, elaborate tower and dominating spire. Its benefactor, a very wealthy clergyman, intended it as a beacon of hope for one of the poorest slum areas of Taunton. No expense was spared in the building or its furnishings, which include a magnificent wrought iron screen featuring Noah's Ark and a procession of animals, virtuosic carved woodwork in the choir stalls and font canopy, and a truly wonderful three manual Willis organ of the same date as the church.
The church: The benefice includes the Church of St Mary Magdalene. They seek to be inclusive, stating that their mission is to offer a place in which to find peace, meaning, and identity, and to serve and care for individuals, the community and the world as followers of Christ. Their style of worship is Anglo-Catholic. As well as eucharistic worship on a Sunday morning and on holy days, there is a monthly evensong, along with weekday services on Mondays and Wednesdays, and other occasional services.
The neighbourhood: The parish now consists of solicitors' and accountants' offices and County Hall, the home of Somerset County Council, the county court and magistrate's court buildings, with a few Victorian large terrace houses turned into flats and bed-sits.
The cast: The Revd Jane Eastell, associate vicar.
The date & time: Sunday, 10 April 2016, 10.00am.

What was the name of the service?
Sung Eucharist.

How full was the building?
Almost empty – there were about twenty in church altogether including three servers.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes, a warm welcome from the lady giving out hymnbooks and leaflets, and a hand-shake at the peace.

Was your pew comfortable?
A normal pitch-pine pew. What else is there to say?

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Very quiet. There was a prayerful silence from the whole congregation during the opening organ voluntary, and then after some notices were given out, there was complete silence for two or three minutes before the service began with the ringing of a bell and a hymn.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
After the opening hymn, (unannounced): “In the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.”

What books did the congregation use during the service?
A locally printed Common Worship order of service, a leaflet containing the hymns and notices for the week, and 2013 edition of Hymns Ancient and Modern.

What musical instruments were played?
A magnificent – no, spectacular – Henry Willis organ.

St John the Evangelist, Taunton (Organ)

Did anything distract you?
The building itself is a fabulous example of George Gilbert Scott at his finest, and contains remarkable metal-work screens and furnishings, so that it is almost a distraction in itself.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
This was high Anglo-Catholic worship, absolutely formal: incense, bells, ending with singing the Salve Regina – in fact the lot, but without any fussiness and unobtrusive care and precision. The serving team were superb, and a real contribution to the liturgy.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
There was no sermon, because the service was being followed by the parochial annual general meeting.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The extraordinary prayerful atmosphere, the use of silence before and during the service, the total feeling of recollection – where do I stop? Nothing was hurried. We had the most gorgeous music of 19th century German composer Josef Gabriel Rheinberger before and after the service, and Bach during the communion. The hymns were played at a pace and pitch that encouraged congregational singing. In fact, the congregation sang everything throughout the service with enormous musicality without being led by a choir. That in itself was remarkable.

St John the Evangelist, Taunton (Interior)

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
This service was so exceptional, that I was despondent that there were so few there to share in it.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I was thanked for joining the service, asked if I was visiting Taunton, and invited to stay for tea or coffee.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was tea or ordinary instant coffee, in cups or mugs, and a chocolate digestive biscuit, but because the service was being followed by the meeting, I decided to slip away. I did note, however, that the milk for the coffee and tea was the ultra-high-temperature processed kind.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
10 – Another church where 10 is not enough! This is a congregation who evidently take their worship seriously, but also with warmth and humility. The feeling of prayer throughout the service was quite incredible, almost Orthodox in style. If I were within an hour’s drive, I would make it my regular despite the UHT milk.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
More than glad – I felt privileged to worship with them and to share in their company.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
Very difficult to single out only one thing, but perhaps if it does not sound too hopelessly pious, that I had “joined with angels and archangels, and all the company of heaven.”
 
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