The Abbey of St Laurence at Ampleforth, North Yorkshire, England

Ampleforth Abbey, North Yorkshire, England


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Mystery Worshipper: AntSJD
Church: Ampleforth Abbey
Location: North Yorkshire, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 19 July 2009, 10:00am

The building

The Abbey of St Laurence at Ampleforth was founded in 1802 using a house given to the community by Lady Fairfax. It claims descent from the Westminster Abbey and Dieulouard monastic communities, before and after the Reformation. The monastery was finished in 1897. Although ideally situated, the abbey building itself is not particularly beautiful and is rather bleak inside, with the walls being a dirty grey colour. There is, however, some rather fine woodwork by the famed British furniture maker Robert Thompson, including some early works that do not have the trademark mouse carved on them.

The church

The abbey is situated next to Ampleforth School, which is known as the Catholic Eton and is a successful, large mixed-sex boarding school. The monks used to be heavily involved in teaching, but now only about ten of them have any teaching responsibilities. The community run retreats and the place is used by many visiting groups celebrating Christian and non-Christian events.

The neighborhood

The abbey owns much of the surrounding land in the beautiful Yorkshire Moors. The neighbouring villages of Ampleforth and Oswaldkirk have small ancient churches that are worth visiting. The nearby town of Helmsley is a picturesque market town with castle ruins.

The cast

The celebrant and preacher was Dom Henry Wansborough, OSB, with the rest of the community concelebrating and acting as deacons and cantors.

What was the name of the service?

Conventual Mass

How full was the building?

The congregation were seated in the main body of the nave and there were probably around 50 people in total, plus the monks, who were slightly down in numbers. Apparently at this time of year many of the brothers go on retreat or on holiday.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

No one welcomed us. There were service sheets on a small prayer stall. People were expected to take one of these and then find a seat.

Was your pew comfortable?

The pews were comfortable with good quality kneelers.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

The atmosphere was quiet and prayerful with an air of expectation. People eagerly kept an eye out for the entrance procession.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

There were no books used at all. There was a sheet which contained the two hymns, a responsorial psalm in the vernacular, and then all the mass texts (Kyrie in Greek; Gloria, Sanctus and Benedictus in Latin) with their corresponding plainchant notations.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ and the cantor.

Did anything distract you?

A tall man collapsed a few rows in front of us during the fraction. There was a general commotion as a doctor (luckily there was one there) went to his assistance and a glass of water was brought to him. He soon regained his colour, but this was an obvious distraction for some time, as people kept looking to see whether he was OK.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

The worship was not as high as I'm told is usual. No incense, for example. However, it was very dignified with a good deal of reverence shown.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

9 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

7 – The learned Dom Henry spoke the finest Queens English; it was some of the greatest affected church speech I have ever heard.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Dom Henry spoke on Mark 6:30-34 (Jesus takes pity on the crowd, likening them to sheep without a shepherd) and on next week's reading (the feeding of the five thousand). Jesus the Shepherd is the person who protects us, unites us, and feeds us today with his uniting sacrament, the mass.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The mass was very well done. Although I couldnt receive communion, I received a blessing from the monk who had led our retreat. This had a nice significance.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

The man collapsing was rather distressing and distracted the congregation, at least me, for some time. And I always feel that concelebration can be awkward, like bad synchronized dancing, and can even look ridiculous.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

We followed everyone out to the main entrance, where tea and coffee were available. The congregation werent overly friendly, but we were soon joined by one of the monks of the abbey who came over to chat. He made pleasant ecclesiastical small talk for 20 minutes.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Nice tea and coffee, but no evidence that it was fair trade. Orange juice was also available. Proper cups and saucers for the hot beverages, but plastic cups for the orange juice.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

6 – I didn't think there was a particularly strong sense of community amongst the parishioners. The area is well served by Catholic churches (many staffed by the monks), and I got the impression that this was where you went for a special treat, so to speak – for the benefits of the fine singing and the setting. And it would bother me not to be able to receive the eucharist.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

The Benedictine tradition and the plainchant were splendid. These, combined with two great hymns ("All people that on earth do dwell" and "O God our help in ages past"), really did make me feel happy to be singing and worshipping God.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

Dom Henry's very proper accent and the collapsing man.

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