Much more information becomes available after 1882, for in that year Mr. Bartlett started the parish magazine, which shows that our practice was “moderately High” at this time, although the appearance of the choirboys in violet cassocks in 1890 was probably sensational, even at St. John’s. Sunday worship here then comprised 8 a.m. Holy Communion, 11 a.m. Matins, Sunday School and Evensong. There was Evensong daily but only one weekday celebration of Holy Communion, except on Saints’ Days. It is clear today that such a programme had an element of paradox in view of the repeated teaching of the vicar, Mr. Bartlett, on the essential nature of the Eucharist and the need for more communicants. The Good Friday Three Hours, however, was established as a regular devotion, and the church was open daily for private prayer, at a period when probably most English churches remained closed on weekdays. (The castaway from central Europe in Conrad’s contemporary tale, “Amy Foster”, was amazed at the locked, poverty-stricken churches of East Kent. “There was nothing to steal in them. Was it to keep people from praying too often?”) Periodic missions and special Lent preachers were also established features, and the clergy (for there was an assistant priest from 1883) unceasingly urged the need to support missions, at home and abroad.
In view of the links that later developed between the parish and Guyana, it is interesting that a priest from that country, the Rev. A. Hoggins, preached for the S.P.G here on 2nd December, 1883. An equally topical note is struck by the vicar’s admonition in 1889 that “the promotion of unity becomes a pressing duty for all those who…call themselves Christians…The idea that Our Lord only meant an invisible sort of unity, and that there is some spiritual Church hovering over and mingling with the visible Churches, to which spiritual Church alone His prayers and promises apply, is a mere seek to justify existing divisions.”
There is little direct parochial evidence of the state of inter-denominational relations in those days, but from 1881 St. John’s Mothers’ Meeting was allowed the use of the Congregational Schoolroom, an early instance of the friendliness of the Sevenoaks Congregational Church towards us. It was the termination of this arrangement in 1889 which may have led eventually to the acquisition of a series of temporary premises for a Parish Room (the predecessor of the present building) in 1896. But the bitter national controversies over Disestablishment and the Education Bills in Edwardian times (often referred to in the magazine) must have rendered amicable relations with the Non-conformists difficult in the twenty years before 1914.
St. John’s Schools – Boys, Girls and Infants – were then an integral part of church life, which also embraced a host of special groups, meetings, clubs and societies, from the Choral Society (music at church and concert were both keenly cultivated) to the Ministering Children’s League, whose “one kind deed a day” anticipated the later Scout movement.
The social problems of Late-Victorian England are reflected in some of these activities. Thus St. John’s maintained a branch of the Church of England Temperance Society, with a Band of Hope for the children. It should be remembered that appalling and widespread drunkenness impelled even Cardinal Manning to take the pledge of total abstinence as an example for the sake of the home mission of the Roman Catholic Church at this time. Similarly, the institution of a regular winter soup-kitchen for unemployed families in St. John’s parish held at Major Bevington’s “garden house” at Merlewood (of which a relic of the gateway, still bearing the name, remains in Mount Harry Road), was an example of Victorian parochial care for those in need.
St John’s also provided most of the entertainment available to a still largely immobile population, numbering about 5,000 in 1901. A regular series of lectures, concerts, teas and treats, in many of which music played a large part, continued throughout the year. The magazine printed enthusiastic reports of these: for example, of the playing of the “German and Zanzibar bands” and of Mr. German’s rendering of “Just behind the Battle, Mother”…”the effect of which was greatly heightened by the echo from behind the piano, admirably arranged by Mr. Essery”. The “magic-lantern” often rendered essential assistance at lectures, but a portent had appeared by 1898, when a Mr. Starkey gave a lecture on the Reformation at the club Hall, Sevenoaks, with “oxy-hydrogen dissolving views” as his visual aid.