A brief history
The initiative for building the church of St. John the Evangelist, and much of the fund-raising energy that made it possible, came from Cecil, Marchioness of Lothian, who laid the foundation stone in July 1843 on the plot of land bought for the purpose by her late husband at Crossacre, part of a market garden and then at the northern edge of the town.
The architect John Hayward (of the Diocese of Exeter) was commissioned, the main work being placed with local tradesmen, Cranston, Turner and Smith, with a work force of about 75 men.
The building was completed in just over a year. It was dedicated by the Bishop of Glasgow on Thursday 15th August 1844, with three other Bishops and forty clergy in attendance. Notable figures from the Oxford Movement included Revd. John Keble, who was one of the preachers during the weekend of celebrations and special services that followed the dedication.
No expense was spared in the building of the church. The list of donors included Queen Victoria, Dowager Queen Adelaide, the Lothian family and many other noble and distinguished benefactors.
Lady Lothian had become interested in the Oxford Movement and the Cambridge Camden Society and their influential ideas on worship and church architecture. They wanted to re-establish the catholic tradition of sacramental worship and designed new church buildings to suit.
The layout and decoration of the new building, the elaborate consecration ceremony, the procession of bishops and clergy – several of them from England – in their vestments, even the order of service used for the Eucharist, were strong statements at a time of fierce controversy.
Rev. Charles Popham Miles, a Glasgow clergyman, spoke for many evangelicals in opposing this “unhappy display” of “superstition and idolatry”. But the Ecclesiologist magazine was entranced: “We believe that few modern churches can compete with it in the ecclesiological propriety and decorative richness of their internal fittings and enrichments”.
Local reaction to the new church was divided. The Kelso Chronicle was deeply suspicious but the Kelso Mail very sympathetic: “It is, we believe, the only new church which has yet been completed in Scotland on the true principles of Catholic architecture, and as far as we can judge, it is perfectly chaste in all its parts, and correct in its arrangements. It embraces, we should say, all the essentials for the proper celebration of divine service according to the ritual of our Church.”
Inside the Church
Immediately noticeable in the south-eastern corner of the nave is a 17th Century Russian icon of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem (anonymously donated to the church in the 20th Century), which combines with the series of modern icons found on the north and south walls.
Traditionally, fourteen ‘Stations of the Cross’ are placed in many churches to allow Christians to carry out a symbolic pilgrimage by visually following the last days of Jesus’ life, known as the Passion, starting with His condemnation and ending with His entombment. St. John’s was equipped with its first set of Stations, in the form of framed pictures by the graphic artist Thomas Noyes Lewis, in the mid-1930s.
St. John’s icons now extend the story to include the resurrection and the meeting between the risen Christ and two disciples on the road to Emmaus. They were painted for us in 1993 by Sister Barbara Anne of the Community of St. Mary the Virgin in Wantage, and are known as the ‘Icons of the Journey’.
Pictures: Icons of the Journey
In the early years, the pews at the front of the nave were free, emphasising that the church was not socially exclusive. For many years, one of the main sources of church income was the system of pew rents. Families could pay an annual rent to reserve seats for their exclusive use. In 1921, the fee was standardised at five shillings (25p) per seat. The rents were finally abolished in 1952.
The pulpit, like the font and the high altar, is made of Caen stone. The first two were a gift from Queen Adelaide, widow of King William IV. The pulpit is entered by a staircase from the Vestry.
The font is placed to the west of the church door, a position chosen to symbolise the starting point for the Christian’s journey throughout life towards God.
At one time, water was blessed on Easter Day and then used throughout the year for baptisms. The font was fitted with a lid to protect the holy water. Nowadays fresh water is blessed for each baptism service. On the sides of the font are the symbols of the four Evangelists. The eagle symbol for St. John the Evangelist was also used in a large brass lectern, visible in the first illustration of the interior and in photographs before 1945, by which time it had been replaced by the wooden lectern still in use today. The original’s fate is unknown.
Photographs before and after the alterations of the 1940s
The elaborately carved wooden rood screen divides the nave from the chancel.
The word ‘rood’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon and means ‘Cross’. The rood screen was a common feature in mediaeval times, but was almost unknown in Scottish churches built after the Reformation. Oxford Movement architects believed that a screen, symbolically separating the building into separate spaces for the congregation and the clergy, would help to restore the central importance of sacramental worship. The figures above it of Jesus, the Virgin Mary and St. John were added in 1943, one of several alterations made around that time.
The chancel is the area between the rood screen and the altar rail. This area of the church is now occupied by the choir stalls and the organ, but when the church was first built the choir sat at the front of the nave and the organ was above the porch. The congregation would not have entered the chancel except to receive Holy Communion during the celebration of the Eucharist.
The present organ is a two-manual Viscount Envoy digital model, installed in 2015 with the help of generous donations from the congregation and the wider community.
Beyond the choir stalls on the right-hand side of the chancel are the sedilia, three bays with stepped seats. A set of tapestries depicting the six days of the Creation story in the Book of Genesis hangs in the sedilia.
Pictures: Creation Tapestries
The sanctuary is divided from the chancel by a step and altar rail. The area is reserved for the Priest, and is only entered by lay people when they are helping to prepare for a service or are authorised to assist the Priest during a service.
When St. John’s was built, Scottish Episcopalians were free to erect stone altars, unlike their cousins in the Church of England, so the architect made the most of the opportunity to grace the sanctuary with an altar of Caen stone with elaborate carving, set against the east wall. Originally, the altar was lower and narrower than it is now, and approached up three steps; in around 1940, the then incumbent had it raised onto a fourth step and made wider.
The high altar is designed and placed as the focal point of worship at St. John’s, as in all churches of the Anglican Communion, and is the Christian symbol for two different things.
First, at the time of Christ, it was common Jewish practice to sacrifice an animal to atone for your sins. Christ is seen as having been sacrificed for the saving of mankind and the altar is the reminder of that sacrifice.
Secondly, at each Eucharist the story is retold of the Last Supper which Jesus had with his Disciples, and the altar is also the table from which the Priest distributes the bread and wine.
In the far right-hand corner of the sanctuary is the piscina. This shallow basin was designed for washing the sacramental vessels after the Eucharist, so that the used water would be discharged straight to earth. Above it, a small cupboard called an aumbry holds the Reserved Sacrament – bread and wine consecrated for use in taking Communion to members of the congregation who are not well enough to attend services, and for use (with the permission of the Bishop) at a Communion service when a Priest is not available. Left of the high altar is the credence, a small table to hold the bread and wine before they are consecrated by the Priest in the ceremony of the Eucharist. Like the piscina, this is made from Caen stone.
A particular feature of the church is the array of beautiful tiles throughout the nave, chancel and sanctuary.
These were made by Minton & Company, Stoke-on-Trent. Even the chancel roof is tiled, in blue porcelain tiles presented by Herbert Minton himself.
The enamelled tiles behind the altar were installed by the architect instead of the screen, or “reredos”, found behind the altar in many churches, and were designed by Augustus Pugin of House of Commons fame. The tiles immediately above the altar were rediscovered during extensive restoration works in 2006 – 7, having been obscured by a wooden reredos erected around 1940. Some of the tiles bear symbolic reminders of the betrayal and crucifixion of Christ: a pillar with money bag, five wounds with a cross, robe, ladder with thorns, dice and sponge, lantern, cockerel, nail heads and cross and scourges.
On the floor of the chancel, there is the Saltire with its familiar motto “Faith, Hope, Peace and Charity” as well as other texts. Four tiles show the symbols of the four Evangelists, Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
Elsewhere there are monogram tiles of those who donated significant sums to pay for the Church.
St John’s east window above the altar represents the Way to the Cross (left), the Ascension (centre) and the Agony in the Garden (right), reminding us of the heart of the Christian message. The coats of arms of the Lothian Family are shown below the two eastern windows. In the Sanctuary, the single windows show the Raising of Lazarus and Jesus blessing the children.
The west window shows St John the Evangelist leading the Virgin Mary away from the Crucifixion (left), the Entombment of Jesus (centre) and the Empty Tomb (right).
On the north side of the nave, two windows show the coats of arms of the Bishop of Durham (left) and Glasgow (right). St. John’s was in the Glasgow Diocese until boundary changes in 1888, since when it has been in the Diocese of Edinburgh. Before 1100, this part of Scotland was in the Diocese of Durham.
Outside the Church
The churchyard is entered through a picturesque lychgate – much less common in Scotland than in England – with timber beams and a tiled roof, designed by the architect William Butterfield at the beginning of a distinguished career. He was associated with the Cambridge Camden Society, and assisted Hayward with the church interior. Later, he designed the school and schoolhouse beside the church.
One grave of particular note is that of Catherine MacMillan Scott who was baptised and buried at St John’s. When she was refused training in nursing because of her frail health, she joined one of the religious orders founded by the Oxford Movement, taking the name Sister Margaret, and spent her life caring for orphans and the destitute of Manchester. She died tragically early at the age of 34 from a disease caught during her work. The former Cottage Hospital in Jedburgh was named after her in her honour.
We are grateful to:
- The Arts Society (formerly National Association of Decorative and Fine Arts Societies NADFAS).
- Rev. Sandy Ryrie for extracts from his book “A Vision Pursued”.
- The Scottish Church History Society for permission to use Dr. Tristram Clarke’s 1997 paper on St. John’s architectural and historical significance.
- Richard Taylor, for his very useful book “How to Read a Church”.