Wells Cathedral, Wells, Somerset, England


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Wells Cathedral
Location: Wells, Somerset, England
Date of visit: Tuesday, 25 July 2017, 5:15pm

The building

The Cathedral Church of St Andrew, Wells, is a magnificent medieval building, with two towers on the west end that look to me like they were never finished. The present cathedral was begun in about 1175 on a new site to the north of an old minster church. Wells was the first English cathedral to be built entirely in the Gothic style. The chapter house was completed in 1306. The west front is breathtaking. About 300 of the original statues survive. One of my favourite features of the church is a clock in the north aisle – the second oldest mechanical clock in England still in use. When the chimes strike, there is a parade of jousting knights on horseback, including a head being chopped off by a lance. The building also boasts a splendid 14th century stained glass window, called the Jesse Window, which has been protected by means of secondary glazing. The cathedral also boasts unique architecture, such as inverted arches, more commonly called scissor arches, supporting the central tower. This structure was added in 1338 after the weight of a new spire on the top of the tower threatened to collapse the whole thing.

The church

Wells Cathedral is the seat of the Bath and Wells diocese. The Bishop of Bath and Wells still lives in the Bishop's Palace next door, which is open as a tourist attraction. I was told of Bishop Beckington, who built a well house (1451) so that the people could make use of the fresh water from the wells within the palace walls. In modern times, the cathedral has an outreach programme, enabling them to reach people in the local area who wouldn't be able to visit the cathedral itself. This includes projects with local children, older people, disadvantaged people, the prison (now closed), and hospitals and hostels. The cathedral holds concerts and events throughout the year, which are mostly done in collaboration with local community groups. They have a scheme called the Week's Good Cause, whereby awareness and money are raised for Somerset organisations.

The neighborhood

The city of Wells is so called because of a set of three wells that are found in the Bishop's Palace next door to the cathedral. Evidence has been found of stone age and Roman settlements, and a Romano-British burial chamber points towards Christian worship at the site. There was also a Saxon mortuary chapel, and a minster was built in 705. The city is the smallest in the country, and is located 22 miles east of Bath. Although the inhabitants only number 12,000, it draws many visitors, and there are markets held twice a week. The city has the added bonus of being very close to other Somerset destinations and is a perfect base if you're on a week's holiday.

The cast

The Revd Canon Andrew Featherstone, chancellor; the Revd Canon Nicholas Jepson-Biddle, precentor. The cantor was a member of the visiting choir, the adult choir of the Robert E. Lee Memorial Episcopal Church, Lexington, Virginia, USA.

What was the name of the service?

Festal Evensong.

How full was the building?

Generally for evensong in cathedrals, only the quire is used. As Wells is a small cathedral, the seats were mostly full, but that would only amount to about 80 people (not including choir).

Did anyone welcome you personally?

As we arrived shortly before evensong, there weren't many people around. We had a look around before the service, and when the ropes were removed, the verger greeted the waiting crowd with, "Here we go then!" The hymnbooks and laminated order of service were already in pews.

Was your pew comfortable?

It was lovely. We sat right under the organ, behind the verger's stall and next to the choir. We had high backed stalls with thick cushions.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Cathedrals tend to be more touristy, so many of us were wandering round before the service, admiring the scenery. As we waited for the ropes to be removed, there was general chit-chat, and Child spent time picking up flyers to give to me.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

At this point, I need to say that the sound system was very muffled – they were using microphones and speakers, but I think the speakers must have been hidden under cushions somewhere because I could barely hear a thing. I think the precentor said "Welcome to Wells Cathedral" but it could have been "Welcome to Wells for Choral Evensong."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

New English Hymnal and a laminated order of service from the Book of Common Prayer Evensong.

What musical instruments were played?

The visiting choir was accompanied by the organ.

Did anything distract you?

I believe this is one of the smallest cathedrals in the country, and I'm afraid to say that the acoustics aren't very good in the quire. The singing was hard to hear, especially when the organ was accompanying. The blower on the organ was really loud, which meant that spoken parts of the service were also hard to understand. I was also distracted by Child, who had got a crinkling packet of raisins out and couldn't open them. (My apologies to the verger for that one, as we got his attention.) I was also unfortunate enough to be seated next to the trio of tourists whose telephone started ringing during the final prayers.

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

The very finest of Anglican choral evensong. As it was a feast day (James the Apostle), there was incense. It added beautifully to the atmosphere. The preces and responses were by the American church musician Michael Bedford; the anthem was Sir Charles Hubert Hasting Parry's wonderful setting of Dear Lord and Father of Mankind; and the service was the 20th century English composer Sir George Dyson's Evening Service in F. We visited Wells because we were camping at the New Wine convention nearby all week, and the beauty of the history of the choir and the cathedral, in contrast to the very modern worship bands at New Wine, made the experience all the more uplifting.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

No sermon.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

Being able to sit back and enjoy the beautiful music in an amazing and historical setting was wonderful.

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

The sound system; that telephone ring; and not having a music copy of the hymn book. Only one hymn in the New English Hymnal is dedicated for the purpose of the Feast of St James, and I'd never seen it before!

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

It's hard to stand around looking lost in the cathedral, because that's almost the intention of the building ("Lost in wonder" as Charles Wesley so aptly put it), but I chatted to a member of a visiting Scout troop from a town near Lisbon, Portugal (who were remarkably well-behaved and engaged in the service; a credit to themselves and their leaders).

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

No after service coffee. We did intend to visit the cathedral shop on our way out (we hadn't had time beforehand), but it was closed when we left the building. I think it would be nice to have the shop open for a while after evensong.

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

5 – If I lived nearby, I'd be tempted!

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

It did. I was uplifted by the music and the prayers.

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

How very small the building is!

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