Mystery Worshipper: Aldhelm
Church: Buckfast Abbey
Location: Buckfastleigh, Devon, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 25 February 2007, 10:30am
According to their website, the Abbey Church of St Mary is the only English medieval monastery to have been restored and used again for its original purpose. Founded as a Benedictine abbey in 1018, it became Cistercian in 1147 following a period of decline and was completely rebuilt according to Cistercian standards. Its affairs appear to have prospered until Henry VIII decreed its dissolution in 1539. Those parts of Buckfast that were not sold or flattened fell into ruin and remained so up until the 19th century. In 1882 the abbey was reoccupied by a community of Benedictines from France, who set about restoring the buildings to their original Cistercian design based on careful planning, excavation and research. The restored abbey church was reconsecrated on 25 August 1932. By the late 1970s Buckfast Abbey had become one of the most visited places in the West Country, attracting well over 300,000 visitors each year. It is a beautiful edifice, fairly austere but reassuringly traditional. The interior is decidedly Gothic, with touches of Romanesque, and features mosaic marble pavements and numerous side chapels. All of the side chapels are traditional save for the Blessed Sacrament chapel, which is modern and includes stained glass made by the monks themselves in their workshop.
The church serves as the abbey church for the community of monks and as the local parish church. All of their daily services, including the divine office (with vespers and compline in Latin) as well as mass, are open to the public. Several masses are offered on Sunday, with the 10.30 mass being the focal point of the day for the monks. The abbey also maintains seminar and conference facilities and an education centre available for public use. Following an ancient monastic tradition, beekeeping is alive and well at Buckfast, its apiaries producing over four tonnes of honey each year and supplying queens to beekeepers all over the world. The monks also produce a tonic wine commonly known as Buckie, which in some areas is alleged to be the drink of choice for persons prone to anti-social behaviour when drunk, although it is only one of a number of brands consumed abusively.
Situated on the edge of Dartmoor, Buckfastleigh is in an area of outstanding natural beauty and so worth a visit simply to enjoy the scenery. Attractions include the South Devon Valley Railway, a steam railway following the old Ashburton line, and the ruins of 13th century Holy Trinity Church, in whose churchyard stands the tomb of one Richard Carbell, believed by locals to have been in league with the devil. Stories of black dogs howling and breathing fire around the tomb are said to have inspired Conan Doyle's novel The Hound of the Baskervilles.
As befits the humility of a monastic community, no significance is placed upon the names of the concelebrants or preacher, and so sadly these could not be identified.
What was the name of the service?Community Mass.
How full was the building?
About half full in the nave, possibly 200 congregants.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Pretty cool on the welcome front – a nice smile and a good morning from a lady who handed me the mass book and an announcement sheet, but that was it. My pew was otherwise empty, but a lady in the row in front was kind enough to compliment me after mass on my singing.
Was your pew comfortable?
Pretty traditional oak and fairly unforgiving.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Delightfully peaceful and reverential, just an odd murmur or two of greeting. It was the first Sunday in Lent and so the organ was silent prior to the service, which made the stillness more palpable.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The mass book gave the order of service, the readings, and prayers for the day. The hymns and chants were on a separate sheet.
What musical instruments were played?
Pipe organ, and very well played indeed! First installed in 1922, the organ was re-specified in 1952 as a four manual instrument with 70 speaking stops.
Did anything distract you?
This was one rare occasion when I experienced nothing to distract me. A glamorous companion in the pew would have been nice but probably not much of an aid to worship.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Modern Catholic, all in all very focused. Dignified and solemn but not precious. Very much tempered to the requirements of the monks. Apart from the first reading, the hymns and the offertory procession, there was no lay contribution. I doubt the abbey has experienced the sound of steel band or a guitar.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – Perfectly clear and measured, delivered via an excellent sound system.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
This being the first Sunday in Lent, the penitential nature of the season and its importance as a preparation for Easter was the theme. Apparently the word Lent comes from the Old English for spring, and this theme was developed to suggest that it is a good time for taking stock of one's failures and shortcomings and planting the seeds of renewal.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The wonderful natural setting for the abbey, the fine architecture, reverential liturgy and the plainsong combined to make for a pretty heavenly experience.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The service was billed as a community mass but I felt no sense of community or of being welcome. The monks didn't exactly radiate joy or very much in the way of smiles, but perhaps they don't do joy in an extroverted way. It was all a bit academic and cold, but I suppose that's an inappropriate adjective for the other place!
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Apart from the few kind words from the lady in front, absolutely nothing. If they are working on increasing the size of the flock, I can only assume that it's via the power of prayer. It's certainly not through the warmth of the embrace.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
None offered and none taken. There is a coffee shop/restaurant on premises but it seemed aimed more at the needs of the incoming revenue stream than of the pilgrim.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 – I'm Anglican, not Catholic, but on many levels it would be inspiring to worship here: fine music, careful attention to liturgy, all in a glorious setting. But on a community level it could be hard work. Still, as an abbey church, perhaps that's not what it's about.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, no doubt on that score. But if joy is an essential quality of being Christian, I wasn't a very successful one on this particular Sunday. I'll just chalk it up to Lent, shall I?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The contrast between the beauty of the place and the fact that nobody seemed to care that I was there.