St Stephen, Caerwent (Exterior)

St Stephen & St Tathan, Caerwent, Monmouthshire, Wales


Info and corrections →

Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Stephen & St Tathan
Location: Caerwent, Monmouthshire, Wales
Date of visit: Sunday, 25 September 2011, 6:00pm

The building

A medieval church situated within some tall Roman walls and villas – a small Roman town. The church has a fine medieval tower. The oldest part of the church is the 13th century chancel with fittings by the 20th century English ecclesiastical architect George Pace, noted for his maintenance and restoration work on historic churches. There are Roman bits and pieces nearby, although the church has a severe Victorian south aisle.

The church

They are one of four churches in the Caerwent parish group. They appear lively and are very much a local Monmouthshire church. Attendance is low but vibrant. The church is open every day for prayer, rest and meditation. One mass is celebrated each Sunday, with one Sunday each month set aside for family worship. Evening communion is also held one Sunday (and sometimes two) each month. Their website includes a link to the Ship of Fools under the caption "Have a sense of humour; Jesus did."

The neighborhood

Caerwent was once a Roman city called Venta Silarium. Many Roman ruins can still be seen, including houses and shops, the forum, and a temple. Much of the modern town was built from stones taken from the Roman remains. Also nearby are a sad derelict house and several ruined churches at Sudbrook and Runston where communities have disappeared.

The cast

The Revd William Ingle-Gillis, vicar.

What was the name of the service?

It should have been Evening Communion. However, the service started as evensong, at the conclusion of which the churchwarden reminded the vicar that it should have been communion – whereupon a communion service was hastily tacked on!

How full was the building?

The chancel was surprisingly full, with 16 people present. Given that the nearby evangelical Baptist church was busy, this seemed quite good.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

I more or less welcomed myself. I had been sight-seeing in the area and wandered in simply to get out of the rain that was falling, and to look around and enjoy the quiet as I sometimes do. I noticed that preparations were being made for the start of a service. I was given to understand that they needed an organist, and so I sat down at the console and improvised a bit. No music copies of the hymn book were available, however, so I went back to my chair in the chancel.

Was your pew comfortable?

A nice modern chair in a 13th century chancel. Probably far more comfortable than the original Victorian choir stalls that must have been here.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

I was all by myself at first. Later, 15 or so people found their chairs. Several people welcomed me and said how nice it was that it had stopped raining outside.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"What hymns would you like to sing, folks?" This by the vicar, who took requests.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The Book of Common Prayer for The Church in Wales; Hymns for Today; and their own service sheet. There were also Welsh language service books available, but I understand that Welsh is rarely spoken here. The nearest Welsh speaking congregation is Capel Mynydd Seion in Newport.

What musical instruments were played?

As mentioned previously, I had offered my organ playing services but there wasn't a music copy available! The small organ was built as a war memorial and was recently restored. I would have liked to have played it some more!

Did anything distract you?

Father Will came to Wales from the United States in 1996 and speaks with a strong Texas accent! The Roman artifacts and medieval architecture in the church kept my mind wandering back and thinking of how the same message has been proclaimed from this site for over a thousand years. George Pace's chancel fittings gave it a certain Celtic feel.

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

Despite the rather Puritan looking 17th century pulpit, the service was a curious mix of Anglo-Catholic with some more contemporary styles. It was characteristically evensong, yet the congregation seemed as happy with "I the Lord, the sea and sky" as with "All creatures of our God and King." All hymns were sung without instrument. There was some bowing but no incense.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

20 minutes.

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

9 – It took a little while to get used to the vicar's style, but once I had, I enjoyed it! Every now and again he would refer to one of the congregants, and it appeared clear that he knew them well.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The vicar talked about harvest and how God's vineyard was wider than the church building and congregation. He compared his own poor gardening skills with those of his parishioners, who apparently have some of the best kept gardens in the country! He also said that whilst a personal relationship with God was great, it need not be as cheesy as the televangelist pitch to "know God as your personal God and Saviour." There are other ways of knowing God too.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The peace of evening worship and even some of the informality of choosing the hymns and switching to communion. However, it was the thought of being in a place where worship has been held for over a thousand years. Having been to the nearby ruined churches of Runston and Sudbrook, I couldn't help but feel that it would be good to celebrate in those places once again too.

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

The fact that I had forgotten to bring some change for the collection! However, nobody noticed.

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

Father Will shook hands and said he had seen me before. He was right. I had met him after a service at his other church at Eglwys Newydd a year ago when I wanted to look around there. He had said that it would be nice if I would come to a service – so this time I did!

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There was none.

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

9 – This is a pleasant local church, but I'm not sure whether it would work in a "gathered" kind of way. I enjoyed the quiet service. However, it was sad to see there were no other younger people.

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

Yes, it did, in a quiet and reassuring kind of way. I think people are crying out for a more thoughtful Christianity with continuity with the past. It is getting them through the door that is so difficult!

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

Not being able to play the organ for want of music books.

Our Mystery Worshippers are volunteers who warm church pews for us around the world. If you’d like to become a Mystery Worshipper, start here.

Find out how to reproduce this report in your church magazine or website.

Comments and corrections

To comment, please scroll to the end of this report and add your thoughts there. To send us factual corrections, please contact us. We also discuss reports on our Ecclesiantics bulletin board.

© Ship of Fools