Mystery Worshipper: Chris Churchcrawler
Church: Christ Church with St Ewen
Location: All Saints & St George, Bristol, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 17 January 2010, 6:30pm
A truly magnificent building by Bristol's city surveyor William Paty (1758-1800). A church had stood on the site for hundreds of years; the foundation stone for the present Georgian structure, somewhat resembling St Martin in the Fields, was laid in 1786. The spire features a dragon weathervane, and the clock is famous for its quarterjacks – two statues of men who strike bells with their hammers at every quarter hour. Inside, the roof is made up of 12 elliptical vaults, with cherubs everywhere supporting the pillars. The magnificent classical rood screen dates from 1928 and was fashioned out of the old 18th century screen. Most noticeable is the Georgian semicircular communion table.
The Bristol city centre churches were reorganised in 2008 and the parish now includes the most part of the old parishes of St Ewen and All Saints. They are a member of the Prayer Book Society and use the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. I expected them to be Anglo-Catholic but they aren't – they're just very traditional. They have a small but eclectic congregation who come (quoting from their website) "to enjoy the dignity of our form of worship, the tradition of good preaching and music."
The church is in the old city of Bristol, with its Georgian tower and spire rising above the old legal and financial quarter. Much of the area was bombed during World War II – the church was one of the few buildings not to have been reduced to rubble. Very few people actually live in the parish although this may well change.
There was no mention in writing of the priest's name anywhere. He did introduce himself to me, but I'm afraid I didn't jot down his name. He told me that he is retired and comes to help out from time to time.
What was the name of the service?Choral Evensong
How full was the building?
About 15 in the choir and six in the congregation. There was only one lady there (a proud parent of one of the choristers) and some elderly gentlemen.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
The verger came up and said hello, adding that the service would be traditional. "It's a wonder anyone bothers to come to church, the way they keep mucking about with the services," he went on to say. The rather jolly priest also introduced himself.
Was your pew comfortable?
A comfortable Georgian pew!
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
It was rather noisy. I had hoped for half an hour of organ music on the church's rather historic instrument (see below). But instead, we were treated to choristers running about and the organist shouting down from the loft for one of the choristers to go and fetch his glasses. At length, however, his sight restored, he struck up a loud prelude that showed off the romantic capabilities of the organ.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
We sang the hymn "Jesus Shall Reign" but to an unfamiliar tune.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The 1662 Book Of Common Prayer, of course, and Hymns Ancient and Modern.
What musical instruments were played?
A huge thundering instrument sitting in the west gallery. (This is where all organs should be instead of cramped up in tiny chancel chambers!) The church's original organ was an opus of the great 17th and 18th century English master organ builder Renatus Harris. The original Harris case survives, but few of the pipes are his. The organ was modernised twice in the 19th century by the Bristol firm of WG Vowles Ltd and several times in the 20th century by JW Walker & Sons Ltd of London. Further refinements were made in 2008. The result, according to the church's website, is an instrument that "is immensely satisfying to play, and which speaks clearly into the church." I can certainly attest to the fact that it was played with great enthusiasm and expertise and really complemented the Georgian architecture of the church.
Did anything distract you?
This was very much a Prayer Book service. The old words of the Prayer Book and the Authorized Version of the Bible fit in well with the Georgian architecture around us. The whole atmosphere of the building brought back the Georgian Bristol of years gone by. Bristol was a very different city then. Who filled these pews? I wondered.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Very stiff upper lip as you'd expect of a Prayer Book service, but not Anglo-Catholic in the least. This was worship that does not speak of the modern age. The choir sang the responses and also did an anthem.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 – The priest had quite a dry sense of humour but engaging manner. Unfortunately, some of what he said was lost in the acoustics of the building.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
His theme was Christian unity. He spoke of relations between Anglicans and Roman Catholics, and said that the Church of England was a continuation of the Church of Rome. He told us a story about a Roman priest who had celebrated mass in a fish market. Eventually a rich benefactor built him a church, which was bombed during the war. The priest was fatally wounded while trying to rescue the reserved Sacrament from the church. In his memory, the congregation returned to hearing mass in the fish market. I thought the sermon was rather unusual for a Prayer Book church, as some priests in this tradition have openly criticised the ecumenical movement and the evangelical wing of the Anglican Church in very strong terms.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The music, without a doubt. The organ had a Georgian accent to it – different from the many Victorian organs in the city. Also the Georgian building with its sculptures. The old language, too, was magnificent.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The fact that there were so few of us in the congregation. And it was cold in the building, and my feet were starting to notice. I hadn't had my tea yet, so my mind was on my stomach some of the time.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
The organist played a postlude, and a tiny choir boy came round with an ancient box on a pole for people to put money in for the choristers! I wasn't expecting a second collection, and only had 4p left in my pocket (as I had been generous in the main collection!). After that, I spoke a bit with the priest, who told me he enjoyed serving in churches of other denominations (again, unusual for a Prayer Book tradition). One of the pleasures of retirement, I suppose. A couple of choir boys told me they liked my scarf (I had a very colourful one on!), and even the organist opined that "It is rather fun, isn't it?".
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none! I was very hungry. I wanted my tea! The city on a Sunday is very deserted and not many shops are open. Just as well – I wouldn't have gotten far on 4p.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – Nice for a change, but I like the variety of worship styles within the Church of England and wouldn't want to see everyone go back to the 1662 Prayer Book.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes it did - maybe one from the 18th century perhaps!
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The magnificent, roaring organ that swept everybody off their feet. Also the little choir boy with his collection box on a pole – presumably an old tradition!