St John 's, Ladbroke Grove, Notting Hill, London


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St John 's
Location: Ladbroke Grove, Notting Hill, London
Date of visit: Sunday, 7 April 2019, 10:30am

The building

An attractive Gothic Revival church with an elegant spire. The church dates from 1845 and was designed by the little known (but clearly competent) architects John Hargrave Stevens and George Alexander. It is surrounded by spacious lawns and trees and so commands attention in this elegant part of town. Inside it is all painted white with pale stripped pine floorboards, creating the impression of a Scandinavian Lutheran church rather than a mid-Victorian Anglican one. Two columns of the crossing were hung from top to bottom with purple silk – a modest version of the Lenten array one sees in, for example, Italy or Malta.

The church

They offer a variety of ministries and activities all well documented on their website. I’ll just mention Café in the Space, (quoting from their website) ‘serving delicious homemade food, from Monday-Thursday,’ and the Monkey Puzzle Nursery, which is (again quoting from their website) ‘open … 51 weeks a year and caters for children from 3 months to 5 years. Completely equipped for the professional working parent, (or the very busy parent!).’ On Sundays there is normally a parish eucharist followed by a Tagalog language mass led by London’s Filipino Chaplaincy, which is based at St John's.

The neighborhood

Ladbroke Grove is a remarkable London road. At the south end it boasts some of the finest villas and terraces in London, mostly white stucco jobs, affordable only by the super-rich. These streets were the setting for the film Notting Hill, made on location nearby. Ladbroke Grove rises to a hill, on the top of which is St John's, surrounded also by choice residential addresses. Then the wide road makes a steady descent to North Kensington and becomes steadily more ethnically diverse, scruffy and poor until it reaches an area of significant urban poverty. So the whole spectrum of London is within one mile, and St John's seem to attempt (with some success) the challenge of serving all of it.

The cast

The vicar led the service and preached, assisted by the chaplain of the Filipino Chaplaincy and an altar party of six. An excellent small choir (slightly out of sight for me, as they stood in the north transept) sang two anthems and led us in hymns.

What was the name of the service?

Parish Mass and Tagalog Mass Combined.

How full was the building?

About 110. The congregation were a good balance of ages, gender and ethnic origins.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

A greeter gave me a hymnbook and the three service sheets.

Was your pew comfortable?

A modern pew that was OK, though not fastened to the floor. Every time I sat down it slid slightly away from me on the varnished floorboards. If you are stiff or unsure on your feet, a good old-fashioned pew is a blessing (and no less the pew in front of one), providing always that they are pews of the non-sliding sort! There were some upholstered chairs, too, at the ends of the rows.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Distinctly restless. The pine boarded floor of the church had been sanded down and varnished. Unfortunately the bare floor is extremely noisy when anyone walks on it or toddlers run on it; every movement is loud in the resonant church.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

‘Good morning.’ The vicar then welcomed us and announced the annual meeting of the parochial church council to take place after the service. He introduced the anthem as preparation for the mass itself, though this was made barely audible by the commotion at the door (see below). A procession of clergy and altar party then took us into the liturgy.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

New English Hymnal, a service booklet for mass in Lent, and a weekly service sheet. We were also handed a sheet about liturgy and another giving talks for Holy Week and Easter and a sheet of Lenten talks.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ, which their website calls ‘a significant heritage item.’ This is an instrument created in 2014 using Victorian and Georgian pipes from earlier organs from other churches, and several rebuilds. It’s all in a new case, rather hidden away in the north transept, with a striking stainless steel eagle with outstretched wings on top as the symbol of St John.

Did anything distract you?

Sadly quite a lot. The restless atmosphere before mass continued. The children's corner in the aisle kept most of the young ones preoccupied but – as is bound to be the case – some children felt left out or bored and made noise in various ways or ran about on the noisy boarded floor. As there is meeting space in the crypt and at the west end of the church, I assume it was preparation for the annual meeting and parish lunch that ruled out the use of those spaces for the children. Pity – they could have relaxed more there. The acoustics of St John’s are very resonant, so reverberations that might be absorbed in other churches are distracting here.

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

A modern Common Worship mass with a good selection of singable hymns, a gospel procession, incense. The vicar was assisted by the priest who normally conducts the Tagalog language mass. Happily, this Sunday the two congregations had come together as one for an English language service and would also both take part in the annual meeting and parish lunch. There was uncertainty at several points about whether we should be standing or sitting or kneeling, so it was a bit free-form.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

15 minutes (including setup time).

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

7 — The vicar spent some time setting up the screen and projector on which he would show us three images as illustrations to his sermon. When I saw the huge projector screen being man-handled into the crossing I thought we were perhaps in for some fiery call and response preaching, clerical karaoke, or possibly even a movie. In fact, the vicar used images of mosaics from a now lost 4th century church; they are now housed in the Museum of Qasr Libya (Castle Libya).

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The vicar used the mosaics to illustrate the theological concepts of ktisis (creation), kosmisis (embellishment), and anamnesis (rebirth). This could have become a dry theological lecture, but the vicar related these ancient ideas to the annual parish meeting at St John’s that was to take place after the mass, and it was both accessible and interesting. Here was a worshipping community working out its place in today’s world and learning how to be with itself as a parish community in a huge multicultural city.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The sermon. It was a very powerful idea for the vicar to use ‘management tools’ that are 1600 years old and which must have been debated and shared in the early church in Cyrenaica (as that part of Libya was then called).

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

As the service began, a group around the door were enjoying animated conversation and loud laughter. This spoiled the anthem, which was beautifully sung by the choir at the beginning of the service. Several members of the congregation looked round to see what the disturbance was, but the boisterous conversation and laughter continued. Surely they could see or hear that the service had started?

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

A coffee hatch opened at the back of the church and there was a good deal of socialising among the gathered congregations. I spoke to one young mother, a member of the Tagalog congregation. She had to push her child's buggy up the long hill that is Notting Hill but liked worshipping there. All were welcomed to the annual parish meeting. The parish lunch of Lebanese food was offered later, in aid of Iraqi Christians in Need, a charity that has raised over £1.7 million for displaced Iraqi Christians. I didn’t wait for those, but after further brief chats and using the WC at the back of the church (clearly labelled, clean and welcoming) I went on my way.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

I didn’t sample it but there were many enthusiastic takers.

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

8 — I shall make another visit. The two congregations seemed slightly uncertain how things were to go when they met as one, and in that sense I think this was an unusual Sunday. We were told that at the Easter Saturday vigil mass St John’s has a larger than usual group of baptismal candidates, mostly adult converts from Islam. They will be baptised by total immersion, so I resolved to return to witness their welcome into the Church.

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 Lenten talks leaflet, which was laudably ecumenical, organised by Kensington Council of Churches: venues included Coptic, Armenian, Anglican (both low and high) churches and an RC Carmelite priory. How many churches take such practical ecumenical steps with others nearby?

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