The Church of St John the Evangelist, or St John's, lies on the south side of Edinburgh's Princes Street, at its very western end where it meets Lothian Road. At the bustling heart of Edinburgh, the church overlooks one of the busiest junctions in the city, making the contrast when you step inside still more remarkable.
St John's is in the diocese of Edinburgh of the Scottish Episcopal Church. The Scottish Episcopal Church had its origins in 1582 when the national Church of Scotland rejected government by bishops (episcopal government) in favour of government by elders (presbyterian government).
This was no minor matter in the 1600s when James VI/I and Charles I tried to enforce rule by bishops on the Church of Scotland (thus bringing it into line with the Church of England), resulting directly in the two "Bishops' Wars" between England and Scotland, effectively the opening act of the 20-year Wars of the Three Kingdoms that included the English Civil War and the Cromwellian occupation of Scotland that followed.
Following the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, Charles II tried again to impose bishops on Scotland. After James VII/II. was deposed (largely because of his Catholicism) by William and Mary in 1689, the Church of Scotland was allowed to become fully presbyterian, and the displaced bishops refused to recognise the new regime, supporting instead the "legitimate" (albeit Catholic) King James VII/II, giving the church a common cause with the Jacobites who sought to retake the throne on a number of occasions until 1745. Over time, the Scottish Episcopal Church freed itself of its Jacobite overtones and became a separate church, part of the world-wide Anglican Communion.
The building of St John's started in 1816 on the site of what had previously been a council-owned market garden. It cost £18,000, and the finished church was consecrated on Maundy Thursday, 19 March 1818. St John's was designed by the eminent architect, William Burn, in the perpendicular Gothic style. During construction the size of the church was increased from seven bays to eight. In January 1818 a storm blew down the open lantern that originally sat atop the tower of the still uncompleted church, which was not replaced.
Since 1818, the church has changed significantly on a number of occasions. In 1882 the original flat wall at the east end was removed, being replaced by a magnificent chancel built out into what had previously been part of the burial ground. A church hall was added to the south-east of the church in 1916, and a beautiful chapel was built onto the south side of the chancel in 1935.
But in many ways, the most important changes were made between 1857 and 1861 when many of the original, plain glass, windows in the aisles were replaced with the magnificent collection of stained glass on show today. These were the work of the Edinburgh studio of Ballantyne and Allan. In 1882 Ballantyne's son added two further stained glass windows in the aisles; and Ballantyne's grandson added two more in 1930, and the stained glass window in the chapel in 1935.
The only stained glass not locally sourced were the windows inserted when the chancel was built in 1882, which came from two different London studios. What you see in St John's today is one of the finest collections of stained glass in Scotland, made all the more vivid by the removal and restoration of all the windows over the ten years up to 1995, during which time the exterior stonework of the church was also cleaned.
The interior of St John's could be a world away from the busy streets that lie just beyond its walls. The most striking feature is the plaster ceiling vault, which was inspired by King Henry VII's chapel in Westminster Abbey, London. This is wonderfully complex and ornate. As is the chancel, which is perhaps the second feature that draws your attention on entering the church. The combination of the dark wood fittings, the dark stone used in the arch, the windows, and the ornate ceiling give an effect from the nave like looking through a door into another world.
The chapel to the south of the chancel is beautiful and intimate, and its window is especially striking as you feel closer to it than you do to those in the aisles or chancel.
Stepped down from the south side of the church is St John's terrace. This is home to the Cornerstone Cafe; the Cornerstone Bookshop, an Ecumenical not-for-profit bookshop; the Edinburgh Peace & Justice Centre; and the OneWorld Shop, a fair trade shop established in 1983. Access is via the external steps near the south-west corner of the church, on Lothian Road.