Tewkesbury Abbey, England


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Tewkesbury Abbey
Location: England
Date of visit: Sunday, 19 January 2020, 9:45am

The building

The Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin is an impressive former Benedictine monastery purchased by the town after the Reformation, when it became the parish church. (Had it not, the bells and lead roof would surely have been salvaged and sold, leaving this beautiful building a roofless ruin.) Thankfully it is still full of treasures: Norman nave, Gothic chancel with ambulatory adorned with chantry chapels, medieval tombs, stained glass, elaborate vaulting with spectacular bosses – the list goes on. The River Avon, which flows in the area, has historically been prone to flooding, and this winter has proven no exception due to unusually heavy rains. Although the latest flood alert has been officially lifted as of today, standing water and debris still remain – actually providing a dramatic eye-catching view.

The church

Quoting from their website: Tewkesbury Abbey is ‘a place where people have worshipped God for many centuries.’ But it is also ‘a place exploring how to serve our parish and neighbourhood with acts of compassion along with expressing justice locally and globally.’ There are at least three services every day: morning prayer, holy communion and evening prayer on weekdays; holy communion, parish eucharist, sung eucharist and choral evensong on Sundays.

The neighborhood

Tewkesbury is a small town, still retaining two streets of medieval and Georgian houses. The back alleys and less affluent houses have gone, but there is still enough left standing to give an impression of an unspoilt town. The river Avon, which flows into the Severn here, has brought trade. Grain barges still reached the mill until recently. The wharves were active and, though it is a long way from the sea, the lock on the Severn is built to accommodate the Severn Bore. They still remember the Battle of Tewkesbury (1471), which ended the Wars of the Roses.

The cast

There were three priests: one celebrated, one preached, and one told us that a vast proportion of the world's population still have no toilet.

What was the name of the service?

Parish Eucharist.

How full was the building?

Nave rather less than half full. Perhaps 60.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

I was slightly late but I was given a service sheet.

Was your pew comfortable?


How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Afraid I missed it, as I stopped to chat with a parishioner on the way in.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

Sorry. I don't know.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Service sheet complete with lessons in full, and words to all hymns. (And drawings).

What musical instruments were played?

Very splendid organ, splendidly played. The Abbey is blessed with three organs, two of which have fascinating histories. The Milton Organ (so called because the poet John Milton is said to have played on it) was built in 1631 for Magdalen College, Oxford, and was moved to Hampton Court Palace and then back to Magdalen. It was sold to Tewkesbury Abbey in 1736 and extensively rebuilt and remodeled over the years, including by ‘Father’ Willis and JW Walker. The Grove Organ was originally built for the 1885 Inventions Exhibition – legendary organist William Thomas Best, called the first among contemporary British organists, declared it to be the finest organ he had ever played upon. It was purchased for the Abbey by the Revd CW Grove (hence the name) to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. It was rebuilt in 1948 and again in 1980, when pedal stops from the old organ at Christ Church, Oxford, were added.

Did anything distract you?

The priest who celebrated had sparkling jewels sewn onto her robe in clusters. She twinkled like a chandelier.

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

Absolutely traditional but with modern words.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

About 10 minutes. Sorry. I had no way of timing it.

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

5 — The priest who preached was thorough and sincere but I felt he wasn't really inspired by the subject. To me his theme was THE subject of religion. To him, it seemed to feel like just the current subject that he had to adapt to what he wanted to say.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

‘Who am I?’ We take various selfies and they all reflect bits of our personality. But when we see ourselves through Christ's eyes, we are able to do things we could not do in our own strength.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The sound effects. Good organist. Expert bell-ringers (but that was afterwards).

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

Too many hymns with unknown tunes that nobody sang.

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

I looked at the building. The ‘Anglican welcome’ is really quite unwelcome to Anglicans. We can do it with goodwill and sincerity, but it is not what we choose to do in a beautiful building.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

In the modern visitor centre (but not the public cafe), I was given a hot sausage and a cup of tea. I was late arriving there (because I wanted to see the Abbey in the short gap before the next service) and I didn't expect people to talk to me.

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

8 — They work hard (the vicar is on sabbatical, writing up the Virgin Mary and the English Reformation) and run a cathedral-style parish – two choirs, at least four Sunday services – and I expect it is quite annoying when people are more interested in the building than in what they do in it. But they gamely cater for tourists too.

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

In spite of all their hard work and genuine goodwill, I found the service fell between two stools. It was neither beautiful nor interesting.

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

The floods. The Abbey looks stunning reflected in them.

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