Wells Cathedral, Somerset, England

Wells Cathedral, Somerset, England


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Mystery Worshipper: Traveller
Church: Wells Cathedral
Location: Somerset, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 13 August 2006, 9:45am

The building

Dating from 1180, the Cathedral Church of St Andrew, Wells, is a wonderful example of an English Gothic cathedral: clean, light and airy. The eastward view from the nave is dominated by the "scissor arches," a stone bridge inserted around 1340 after the foundations at the crossing began to sink and the building began to crack following the raising of the central tower. The west front is glorious, with 300 statues telling the Christian story in limestone. There are niches for around 500; Cromwell's troops are thought to have destroyed the lower tiers.

The church

Wells Cathedral bustles with activity. In addition to receiving hundreds of thousands of visitors each year (especially in foul weather – the head virger describes the building as "the biggest umbrella in Somerset"), the cathedral sponsors a wide variety of events ranging from intimate concerts to huge services and national broadcasts. The daily offices in the quire attract a congregation of regulars and visitors, and the Sunday services are also well attended. Cathedrals are indeed a surprising community, with clergy, virgers, guides and visitors making them busy places.

The neighborhood

This is the cathedral church of the diocese of Bath and Wells, a largely rural area in the west of England. Wells describes itself as the smallest city in England, the cathedral being its justification for city status. The sheer size and bulk of the cathedral dominate the city. The name of Wells is appropriate, as St Andrew's Well in the grounds of the bishop's palace delivers a constant stream of water into the moat around this impressive structure and overflows into the gutters in the main street. This source of fresh water was the probable reason for the area becoming settled.

The cast

The Very Rev. John Clarke, dean, was the celebrant. The Rev. Canon Patrick Woodhouse, precentor, served as deacon and delivered the sermon. The reader was Mrs Madeleine Harding. The Rev. Canon Andrew Featherstone, chancellor, made some welcoming remarks at the start of the service.

What was the name of the service?


How full was the building?

Probably around 250 people in the congregation, plus 50 in the nave sanctuary (40 of whom were in the choir – see more below).

Did anyone welcome you personally?

I was one of the 40 in the choir, visiting on a week long choral singing course centred on the cathedral, so I had arrived early to the rehearsal in the song room before the welcomers were in place! With the service underway and from the choir stalls, we could see people at the rear of the building handing leaflets to late arrivals.

Was your pew comfortable?

The choir stalls around the nave altar were stylish and attractively modern. But if I leaned back too far whilst sitting, my head would strike the music rack on the stall behind.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

The organ was playing some tastefully discreet music to cover the bustle of people arriving and finding places.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

Canon Featherstone moved in front of the altar and said, "Welcome. All the notices for the week are on the back page of the service leaflet. The service will start once the clock has struck." Wells is obviously proud of its very early (c. 1400) clock in the north transept that rings every quarter. The virgers disable the ring during the service, but the chime marks the start.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

A 12 page booklet printed on bright yellow paper was given to all worshippers. It was especially produced for the service and contained the words of the hymns, readings and congregational parts, together with indications of the sections of the liturgy, not the full words.

What musical instruments were played?

A magnificent pipe organ whose case sits on top of the pulpitum screen, with the console placed to allow the organist to see into nave and quire. This splendid instrument is able to provide mood music, accompany hymns or deliver a majestic voluntary.

Did anything distract you?

Being in the choir in a strange church, the concentration level was such that not much distracted me. I don't remember any mobile phones going off, and only a few people arrived late. Had I not taken the guided tour earlier in the week, I would have been struck at first site by the wonderful architecture and the appearance of the nave. I do remember wondering during the New Testament reading whether one of the acolytes was male or female!

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

It was English cathedral worship at its most measured: beautiful and dignified. Choir and celebrants were led to their places by virgers holding staves of office as though they had been doing it for centuries, as, of course, their predecessors have been doing. There were no bells, and no incense, and no lingering smell of incense from earlier services, for which this singer gave thanks.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

16 minutes.

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

10 – The precentor has a marvellous speaking voice and a most compelling style. He had me on the edge of my seat. He had just become a grandfather a week before and told tales of first holding his grandson, aged 16 hours, and thinking, "How precious is life, but I do not know him." Very few sermons make me really rethink attitudes, but this one did. I wish that many people in authority around the world could have heard it.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Human life is sacred. Human beings cannot know each other fully – but God can. He then linked this to the Gospel reading (John 6:41-51), where the Jews wondered how Jesus could claim to be the Bread of Life when they knew who his father and mother were. Next, he moved into science, saying that the human genome project, which claims that man will be fully understood once genes and chromosomes are fully understood, is bad science, whereas good science realises that such knowledge only raises deeper questions about the nature of humanity. The celebrated German physicist Werner Heisenberg found as much with his uncertainty principle, which states that as one aspect of a quantity is measured with increasing accuracy, other aspects of the same quantity become increasingly uncertain. The disdain shown for life in the Middle East, where both sides take lives precious to God whilst claiming to be inspired by religion, is not disproportionate (voice dripping with sarcasm) but blasphemous (voice raised to make the very stones shake).

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

English cathedrals are wonderful spaces in which to sing. The softest pianissimo fills the space; the loudest fortissimo can be magnificent without being overpowering. No broadcast or recording can replicate being there, and the privilege of being part of the choir is best of all. The choir sang the (unaccompanied) Byrd Mass for Five Voices and the Byrd Ave Verum Corpus as a communion motet. Just let me sing this sort of music in this sort of space in heaven, please.

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

The contrast between the choir music and the congregational hymns could not be more marked. Tacky, tasteless modern words to traditional tunes always make me cringe, and these were no exception.

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

The service leaflet invited everyone to coffee in the north transept, so that was where people headed. The choir processed out and changed into civvies first and then joined the queue for coffee with the rest. I happened to be standing next to the dean, so we exchanged a few brief words.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Instant coffee made with lukewarm water served in disposable paper cups – but anything wet and warm would have hit the spot at that stage. Although I am not sure whether the coffee was fairly traded, there was a fair trade stall set up next to the coffee table with items for purchase, so there is a reasonable chance it may have been.

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

8 – I have mixed feelings: the quality of liturgy and preaching – 10; architecture and atmosphere – 10; but as I do not have the ability or the means to sing in the regular choir, I'd have to listen to most of the music rather than participate, if this were my regular church. And music in worship is important to me.

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

Undoubtedly, yes.

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

The sermon.

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