St John the Evangelist, Bury St Edmunds
www.suffolkchurches.co.uk - a journey through the churches of Suffolk
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|It is impossible for visitors to
Bury St Edmunds to miss this church, especially if they
arrive by train, for its great spire lifts high above the
shops and terraces of St John's Street to the north of
the town centre, a landmark for miles around. It was the
1841 work of William Ranger, a Sussex-based architect who
earlier in his career had worked extensively with Charles
Barry of Houses of Parliament fame. Ranger had designed
the new church at nearby Westley a couple of years
earlier. He had developed an artificial stone which the
Marquess of Bristol was enthusiastically using for
buildings on the Ickworth House estate just outside of
Bury St Edmunds, and this seems likely to be the reason
for his selection as architect here and at Westley. A
possible connection is that the Marquess owned land in
Brighton that would later become Kemp Town, and may have
come across Ranger in the building work carried out
St John was a district church created under the legislation of the Church Building Act of 1831 within the parish of St James, today St Edmundsbury Cathedral. The style is broadly in the Early English style, though pre-ecclesiological, which is to say before a tacit set of rules had developed in the 19th Century as to what revivals of each gothic style should look like. Hence Pevsner's description of it as ''ignorant'. Corner turrets throw flying buttresses up to the octagonal tapering steeple, as if this were a corner of a Rhineland castle. Thanks to the slope of St John's Street the church is raised above pavement level in an interesting way. The locally produced Woolpit brick has weathered to a grey colour, giving the impression of old stone, without its patina. The most striking feature from close up is the large portico beneath the tower with openings to west and south. The nave and aisles set off eastwards in a confident fashion, disappearing into the terraced houses beyond the narrow churchyard. The little-seen view from the east is curious, the aisles hidden and the east wall of the chancel imposing.
On Sunday, 30th March 1851 a nationwide census was carried out of worshippers in every church in England. The main thinking behind the census was to see if there were sufficient spaces ('sittings') in Church of England parish churches for everyone who might require them, and the income of the incumbents of the churches, as if this might indicate where the Church was giving value for money. The census also included non-conformist churches and Catholic churches, although the returns for the latter were somewhat hit and miss, in East Anglia at least. A controversial outcome of the census was discovering quite how few people were attending the local parish church on a Sunday, and how many were flocking to the Methodist, Congregational and Baptist chapels, especially in the towns. Quite a number of the incumbents and parish clerks filling in returns made excuses for their low attendances, including the weather that morning, the distances involved for parishioners and the number of non-conformists in the parish.
Indeed, a few of the returns are despairing, but if any Church of England incumbent had reason to fill in his form proudly it was Robert Rashdall, the perpetual curate of St John the Evangelist. His return gives us a lot of information about his church and its parish just ten years after its construction. Rashdall had been installed in 1841 as the church's first minister, and he tells us that the church had eight hundred and fifty sittings, half of which were free, the others paid for, bringing in £27 annually. On census day there was a congregation of one hundred and ninety for morning worship, and then two hundred and sixty four for the afternoon sermon. For both services the congregation was augmented by the seventy six scholars of the parish school, the building of which survives to the south of the church, who would have no choice but to attend.
More interestingly, Rashdall's return tells us that the exact cost of building the church was £4266 10s 10d, defrayed by private benefaction and subscription, which is just under a million in today's money. Rashdall's income came from an endowment of land of £100 as well as some other permanent endowments and fees. A plaque that survives under the spire tells us that the land was in the parish of Little Saxham, and the endowment was made by the Marquess of Bristol and the Earl Jermyn, the two major local landowners at Ickworth House and Rushbrooke Hall respectively, one of whom we have already met.
You enter the church through the great portico beneath the tower and the first impression is of space and light, for although there is some coloured glass it visually makes very little impact. The shape and scale of the church indicate that it was intended to accommodate as many people as possible all of whom would have a view of a prominent pulpit, for like many churches built at this time it was intended as a protestant preaching box before the Oxford Movement sent out its great wave of theological and liturgical reform across the Church of England. As the years passed there would be small changes to suit new fashions, including Forrest & Bromley's east window of 1856, and more importantly outstanding glass of 1863 by Robert Bayne in the east window of the south aisle, designed soon after he had joined the firm of Heaton, Butler & Bayne.
But more dramatic change was to come. Today, the eyes are drawn eastwards to the high altar. Highlights of colour stand out, including the font and the reredos, for this is a church firmly in the Anglo-catholic tradition, and it was one of the first urban churches in Suffolk to be so, for in 1870 the Reverend Rashdall retired, and was replaced by a young and enthusiastic priest, Father Stewart Holland.
The effect must have been akin to a whirlwind descending on the church. During the seven years of his incumbency, the church was completely transformed. Holland's journal survives, and recounts the progress he made during that relatively short time. In 1871 the great pulpit was taken down, and replaced with a simple reading desk. The church was decorated for Easter and Christmas. The black gown was given up, and surplices were worn by priest and servers. Holy Communion was introduced on every Sunday, and pew rents were abolished. Services were introduced on weekdays, and some of them were sung. In 1873 choral mass was introduced, the choir were surpliced, and a vestry was built. The west gallery was demolished, and the arch opened out. In 1874 Holland introduced mass on Saints' days, and the psalms were chanted. In 1875 came the major work, for the chancel was raised and reordered by the architect JD Wyatt to make it fitting for sacramental worship, and in 1876 Wyatt's great reredos was installed. All the box pews had now been removed, to be replaced by benches which were considered more appropriate. The following year, Holland's last in the parish, the current font arrived, presumably also Wyatt's work.
Much of the coloured glass we see today came in the early years of the 20th Century, including that of saints in the south aisle that is also by Heaton, Butler & Bayne, though long after they were at their best. In the north aisle there is glass by Kempe & Co. As the new century turned the pace of development slowed, but did not stop. In 1908, a Lady Chapel was fitted into the south aisle. By now, the Anglo-Catholic movement was becoming the Anglican mainstream. A church guide book I bought here about twenty years ago included the reminiscences of a Canon Ullathorne, who was the incumbent here in the 1940s. He recalled that there were two masses every Sunday, with three on the first Sunday of each month.
Today this is a church very much in the inclusive liberal Catholic tradition with a busy congregation and involvement with local schools. It is proudly always open every day. The most recent addition to the church is a new set of Stations of the Cross by the artist Ian McKillop, dedicated at the start of Lent 2008. They culminate in his graphic, visceral Risen Christ above the south aisle altar. Nearby, candles flicker around an image of Our Lady, and to the west is St Michael, a carving from Oberammagau. You might do a double-take when you see what appear to be leaded quarries of 15th Century glass set into the west window of the south aisle, but a closer look shows that they are modern, probably the 1980s work of a youth or craft group. And yet they add to a sense of continuity, of the gradual change that has taken place here over almost two centuries, of tradition as a developing process. Of course, any 19th Century church is architecturally an end in itself rather than the slow process of accretion of its medieval predecessors, but it is by no means a relic of its past, for St John the Evangelist is not just striking and memorable, a fine building at one with the streets around it, it is vitally part of its lovely town, and a beating heart.
Simon Knott, February 2022
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