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St John, Woodbridge

  It is a historical curiosity that this little town maintains two Anglican parish churches - in fact three, if you include Melton St Andrew.

Woodbridge St John is a substantial boxy early Victorian church set at the top of its wide churchyard in the 19th century part of the town centre, about 300 yards from the medieval parish church of St Mary, and around the corner from the Catholic church of St Thomas of Canterbury.

2001: Spireless St John from the south. Note the gallery stairs in the window.

  When I first visited, I thought its tower a curious one, and quite out of proportion (and out of shape) against the bold south wall of the nave. This was explained by the fact that it once had an octagonal spire, which became unsafe, and was taken down in 1981.However, we will return to this spire in a moment.

The architect was John Clark, most famous for the grand Italianate Ipswich Custom House, which he had designed 20 years earlier. The cost was 3000, about 600,000 in today's money.

As it was before 1981, from the north-east. (Photo lent by Parish website).

1840s St John is an exercise in Early English; if not over-exciting, it is confident and articulate. It is in Woolpit brick, like its near-contemporary namesake at Bury St Edmunds.

The west end is a modern addition, containing offices, toilets and the like. It is all done rather well.

One might think that there would be little use for such a large Victorian church in such a small town, particularly when nearby St Mary is so vast.

Nothing could be further from the truth. St John has reinvented itself in a tremendously exciting way, the interior completely refurbished for modern evangelical worship.

The old pews have been removed, and replaced with modern chairs. All the Victorian clutter of the apse-like sanctuary has been cleared, and the superb lancet glasses of saints look down on a bright, open space.

The entire nave and sanctuary have been carpetted, and the walls and roof painted in an exciting manner.

This is all terribly good, and one has a sense of a lively, modern worshipping community.

None of this has destroyed the essential character of the building; rather, a transition to a space serving new liturgical needs has been managed in a creative, thoughtful and interesting manner.

Looking around the porch, I was struck by how much goes on here, with activities as diverse as Alpha, counselling, house groups, a link-up group for women, a revival youth congregation, and something called Freefall, a cafe subculture with a video screen, bar, and DJ for teenagers. This church takes its evangelising mission seriously.

Today, looking west, towards the gallery.

 

Looking east, into the apse-like sanctuary. Note the concealed loudspeakers at rood loft height.

One fascinating development was that the tower has since been rebuilt. This might seem unlikely, especially given the clear evangelical outreach priorities of the parish, but the money was offered as a legacy and would not have been available for other purposes.

 

Above: In the old days, looking west, and left: In the old days, looking east.

Below left: more recent days, before removal of the pews and organ. These photos were lent by the excellent Parish website.

The donor concerned felt, quite rightly, that an essential part of the Woodbridge townscape was lost when the original spire came down.

The replacement tower is a bit different to the original one, because the building clearly isn't capable of supporting a stone or brick spire. Instead, a wooden and lead spire like that at Hadleigh or Wickham Market was felt more appropriate. You can see images of what the church looks like now by clicking on the thumbnails below.

The new spire above St John's Street.
St John's Hill. Very smart. Louvred bell openings.

St John is testimony to what a determined parish can achieve, and they are to be further congratulated for the fact that this church is open for prayer everyday.

 

The future. Architects's drawing of the planned replacement spire, as it would appear from the west.

 

St John, Woodbridge, is in the centre of this pretty town, on the A12 east of Ipswich. it is open daily from 9.30am to 4pm.

You can also visit the St John website, which is excellent, giving a good picture of the busy life of this parish.