Mystery Worshipper: AJH
Church: Holy Trinity
Location: Blythburgh, Suffolk, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 2 September 2018, 6:00pm
Photo: © Mel Etitis and used under license Huge! Sometimes called The Cathedral of the Marshes, it dominates the Blyth estuary. Inside, it’s quite plain but beautiful, with angels in the roof. Decades of neglect followed by sensible restoration have preserved a mediaeval atmosphere. There are also some modern artworks around.
They are part of the Sole Bay Team Ministry. Other than a ladies’ group and a children’s ministry, I didn’t notice mention of any other activities. But the car park was full for this service, and so they seem to attract people from a wide area.
Blythburgh is a village in the Suffolk coastal district, an area known for its natural beauty that includes flooded marshes in the estuary of the River Blyth. The area is said to be haunted by the ghost of a dog the locals call Black Shuck, who was first seen in the late 1500s when he burst through the doors of Holy Trinity Church in a bolt of lightning, terrorized the congregation, and left as suddenly as he had come, leaving scorch marks on the north door that are still there to this day. Black Shuck was seen as late as the 1950s, when he was said to have chased people on bicycles, keeping up with them regardless of how fast they pedaled, and then suddenly vanishing. The church is on the edge of the estuary and marshes, from which you get a splendid view.
One of the team ministry’s associate priests introduced the service, led some of the prayers, and delivered the sermon. The Blythburgh Singers sang from the choir stalls and delivered the sung responses.
What was the name of the service?Choral Evensong.
How full was the building?
The pews in the centre were reasonably full probably around 50.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Was your pew comfortable?
Not particularly. Apparently 19th century benches, with modern back rests added that also provide somewhere to put your books.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Silent we arrived just in time.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
‘Good evening,’ I think. It certainly wasn’t ‘Dearly beloved brethren, the scripture moveth us, in sundry places …’ though that would have suited the atmosphere.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
A well produced leaflet outlining the Book of Common Prayer evensong service, including all the choir and congregation liturgy, together with a sheet giving the details for the day. They were easy to follow. The English Hymnal for the hymns. The full Book of Common Prayer wasn't supplied, so we couldn't follow the psalm, but all the rest was in the leaflet. No Bibles. The second reading was from the 1611 King James Version, but the first was more modern.
What musical instruments were played?
Did anything distract you?
Hearing aids whistling. A dog in a pew at the front, quite well behaved and not barking but occasionally snuffling. I don’t think it was Black Shuck. The angels in the roof (also well behaved). Some bits of stained glass, though most windows are clear glass.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Very stiff upper lip, if not comatose. The introit was Beati Quorum Via by Stanford; responses by Peter Aston; Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis by Herbert Howells; the anthem Faire is the Heaven by Sir William Harris. All very nice. If there was anyone singing in the congregation, I didn’t hear them but the choir compensated.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 — Radio 4 style (on which he speaks from time to time). It’s unusual to have a sermon in choral evensong, and I think this one was OK if only I knew … I confess I drifted off a bit.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
It started off with some statistics and ended with the quote from Francis of Assisi about preaching the gospel and using words if necessary.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Listening to the anthems and responses sung by the choir. Also there was some silence for personal prayers instead of some of the usual bits, which was very nice.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The Puritan flavour of the Book of Common Prayer, shaming us all as miserable offenders, etc.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
It turns out that we knew someone in the choir unexpectedly, as I had no idea they were a member, so we didn’t look lost as we hung around.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There wasn’t any.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
2 — If you don't mind living in the 16th century and you love choral evensong, with good singers, this would be a lovely church to go to once a month. It was a nice experience but I shan't be repeating it. I felt we were 400 years too late.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The excellent choir.