The High Altar
Internally, as externally, the lofty chancel with its elegantly timbered roof, clerestory windows and well proportioned pillars contrasts with the more modest nave. In a prominent position on either side of the chancel entrance are two statues. The painted statue of St John the Baptist, the patron saint of the parish, dates from the 1940s. St John holds a banner reading ‘Ecce Agnus Dei’, the Latin for ‘Behold the Lamb of God’, the words spoken by John when Jesus came to him to be baptized. The polished wooden statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the infant Jesus dates from the 1930s. Mary is wearing a crown, recalling the passage in the Book of Revelation where she is described as being ‘crowned with twelve stars’. The statues are set in canopied shrines tapering to finials with, respectively, a cross and a fleur de lys.
Above the entrance to the chancel hangs a large Rood. Rood is an Anglo-Saxon word meaning cross and in medieval churches a rood screen topped by a cross was frequently placed between the nave and the chancel. A figure of the crucified Christ hangs from the Rood. The Rood was put up in 1961 as a memorial to Alice Charles, a benefactor of the church and a tireless parish worker for many years.
Originally the high altar was placed against the east wall and the chancel walls were decorated with brightly coloured paintings of the crucified Christ surrounded by apostles, saints and angels in a style typical of late Victorian and Edwardian churches. (A drawing by Alfred Hemming, who designed these decorations, gives an impression of what they would have looked like, though they were not completed in full.) . A major reordering of the chancel took place in the first half of the 1960s. Laurence King was the architect responsible for the design of both this and the Lady Chapel. The reordering culminated in the move of the high altar to its present, more central, position in 1965 in order to allow the priest to face the congregation while celebrating mass, in accordance with changing liturgical ideas. On the front of the altar are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, Alpha and Omega, with the Chi-Rho monogram, the first two letters of Christ in Greek, between them, signifying that Christ is the beginning and the end.
The baldacchino, or canopy, was erected over the altar when it was moved in 1965. The Holy Spirit hovers in bas-relief on the blue ceiling. On the entablature is the Latin inscription ‘Resurrexi Et Adhuc Tecum Sum’, meaning ‘I have risen and am with you still’. In the central cartouche above this inscription are the letters IHS, in Greek the first three letters of the name of Jesus. On the east side of the baldachino are the arms of the Rochester diocese.
The reordering of the chancel also saw the earlier wall decorations replaced by an unobtrusive cream-wash and the move to the east wall of the blue and gold Agnus Dei (Latin for ‘Lamb of God’ and represented by a lamb carrying a flag) which had previously formed part of a wrought-iron screen between the nave and chancel, itself removed in this period.
The east window of 1904 was destroyed by bombing in 1940, but was restored with the retention of the original subjects in 1950-51. The central light shows Our Lord in Glory with the Lamb of God above and the crucifixion below. In the end lights are the symbols of the Four Evangelists: St Matthew is represented by an angel, St Mark by a winged lion, St Luke by a winged bull and St John by an eagle. Below on the left is St Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, and on the right the Blessed Virgin Mary. The apostles are pictured in the intermediate lights and the badges of the dioceses of Canterbury and Rochester are also shown.