St Wilfrid founded the church in AD674, when he built a monastery using stones from the ruins of a nearby Roman bridge. The present crypt of the abbey, which once contained the relics of St Andrew, is all that remains of this early church and it is possibly the best example of an Anglo-Saxon crypt still in existence. A chalice dating from Anglo-Saxon times can also be seen in the abbey. Much of the present building dates back to the 12th century, when it was constructed in the Early English style of architecture, but there have been other additions at various times since then. It has been a Benedictine abbey, a cathedral, an Augustine priory and, since the dissolution of the monasteries in 1537, the parish church of Hexham. The entrance in the south transept leads to the very worn night stair, once used by monks to come down to worship from their sleeping quarters. It is now used by the choir coming from their school to sing at services. Magnificent stained glass lancet windows abound in the abbey. Unfortunately reformers and Puritans destroyed the original medieval glass, and it was only from Victorian times that they have gradually been restored. A modern circular altar lies in the crossing, and behind it the chancel screens support a very impressive organ. Small chantries and chapels surround the choir area. It contains the high altar, old carved choir stalls with misericords, and the frith stool, which St Wilfrid himself may have sat on (with, one hopes, a cushion). It also contains well-preserved 15th century wood painting panels depicting the Dance of Death, which is an allegory of death in the form of a skeleton dancing with the Pope and kings.
Their very busy schedule of services can be found on their website. Many diverse groups meet at the abbey, from bell ringers to youth groups. There is also a long history of excellent music; there are organists, four choirs, spring and summer concerts, and an annual festival that promotes quality concerts of mainly sacred and classical music. Full details are on their website.
Hexham is a charming market town built on a hill next to the River Tyne in the glorious rolling countryside of Northumberland. It is very close to Hadrian's Wall, which attracts many tourists. The abbey dominates the town, although an alternative landmark proved to be a factory in the outskirts of the town that belched enormous plumes of white smoke!
The president and celebrant was the Revd Canon Graham Usher, rector. The preacher was the Revd Alan Currie, assistant priest.
What was the name of the service?Parish Eucharist.
How full was the building?
The service took place in the nave and I would say it was mostly full, with about 200 people in the congregation. They were predominantly elderly and quite smartly dressed.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
A sideman greeted us with a polite "Good morning" and handed us all the literature we needed for the service. The president came over to us and asked if we were visitors and where had we come from. He said he hoped we would enjoy the service and invited us to coffee afterwards.
Was your pew comfortable?
The pew was as comfortable as you could expect and the hassock was pleasantly padded to enable us to kneel comfortably.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
This was one of the quietest churches I have visited. It was very peaceful and reverential.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning and welcome to this service on the third Sunday in Lent."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Hymns Old and New, a service booklet entitled A Service of Holy Communion in Lent, and a pew sheet giving lots of information about the week's services and events. Bibles (New Revised Standard Version) were to be found in the pews.
What musical instruments were played?
The only instrument played was the organ, and what a magnificent organ it was! There have been many organs at the abbey, but the current 1974 organ is from Lawrence Phelps and Associates of Erie, Pennsylvania, USA, with two manuals and pedal. The design includes not merely what is necessary for music of classical composers, but also satisfies the needs of the Romantic repertoire and music associated with all periods of the Anglican tradition. The stop list includes string tones as well as that sound so characteristic of the English organ, the full swell; all this done with 34 stops!
Did anything distract you?
A determined vociferous baby decided to compete with the preacher so it was very difficult to follow his sermon.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was fairly high church but certainly not Anglo-Catholic. The crucifer led the opening procession but there was no thurifer; in fact, incense was not used at all during the service. The robed choir consisted of a large number of adults and youngsters, and the fully vested clergy in white albs and purple chasubles followed them. During the service, which followed Common Worship Order One in modern language, there was bowing, crossing and genuflecting at appropriate times.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
4 – The preacher had a Scottish accent and had to compete with a highly vocal baby, so it was often extremely difficult to make out what he was saying. Also he came to a very abrupt halt after saying something that I just couldn't make head nor tail of.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
He referred to the gospel reading as one to make us sit up. It was John's account of Jesus being angry in the temple, because it was being used as a place to sell animals and also money changers were dealing there. Jesus identified himself as the temple when he spoke about being risen from the dead. He then went on to meditate about the middle period of Lent. We start off exercising self-control by giving up small luxuries, but we end up relaxing into Lent. Self-denial can become a denial of the truth of ourselves, and the whole purpose of life is to become closer to God. Lent is not the great opportunity of the year for self-denial; it is the great opportunity of the year for honesty.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
I mentioned earlier that the congregation appeared to be mainly elderly. Well, the children and their parents appeared at the beginning of the service, following the procession of choir and clergy. It was just like watching the Pied Piper of Hamlyn! They just kept coming to the altar and surrounding it until the whole area in and around the altar was packed with children of all ages, some of whom were swinging from the altar rails! After some dialogue between the priests and the children, they departed to their Sunday schools. At the end of the service they came back in and the president quizzed them about what they had been learning, which turned out to be the commandments. I thought it was lovely to see how very much the children were involved in the church.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
There was a moment, I think it was just before the sermon, when I could feel the hair on the back of my neck rising because of the awful racket I could hear. It just sounded as if a rock band had started up at hundreds of decibels and I even craned my neck to see where the rock band was. On not locating any rock band at all, I realised that the noise was in fact coming from the organ. I dont know what the piece of music was but it certainly petrified me! I must say, though, that I thoroughly enjoyed the rest of the music played by a very masterful organist.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Although we stayed for a while, I suspect we were taken for tourists, which we were, so no one approached us.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
We had received a very warm invitation to partake in refreshments after the service but were unable to stay because of another engagement.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – If I lived here it would certainly be on my list.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
All those children! I dont think I have ever seen so many in a church.