Photo: © Saffron Blaze and used under license The Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin is a magnificent Romanesque church, which will be celebrating its 1000th anniversary in 2021. The abbey was founded in 1087 as a community of Benedictine monks. Construction commenced in 1102 and the abbey was completed by 1121, an impressive speed given its size. The tower can be seen for miles around, including from the M5 motorway some distance to the east. The long nave roof and apsidal chancel (behind the main altar) were further embellished in the first half of the 14th century. When Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in 1540, much of the stone from Tewkesbury's monastic buildings was re-used elsewhere, but the people of Tewkesbury petitioned the King to permit them to buy the church from him, which they did at a cost of £453. Maintenance and repair have continued over the centuries but the original structure is clearly still visible. Comparatively recent installation of electric lighting at ceiling level draws attention to the magnificence of the building, especially at night when it is candle-lit.
This is the second largest parish church in England. It offers worship in the Anglo-Catholic tradition, with three eucharist services on Sundays, and at least one on all other weekdays. Healing ministry is offered through a regular monthly eucharist, and a theology forum meets six times per year, open to all interested in theological matters. The abbey has two choirs: the schola cantorum, who sing evensong on four weekdays during school terms, are a professional choir whose boy choristers attend a private school in Cheltenham; and the abbey choir, a local volunteer choir, sing at Sunday services. Other groups who contribute to worship include the guild of servers, bell-ringers, sewing guild and flower-arrangers. The abbey hosts branches of the Boys' Brigade and Girls' Brigade, the Mothers' Union and the Guild of St John, which offers spiritual support to the visually impaired. The church runs the Touching Souls Tea Room in adjacent modern buildings that also house the church hall. There is an active programme of outreach and involvement in the local community and a flourishing Friends of the Abbey supporters club. An important feature to note for this particular service is that the abbey celebrates Epiphany through candle installations to a theme, as will be noted more fully below.
Tewkesbury is a small market town roughly equidistant between the cities of Gloucester and Worcester. It lies at the confluence of the Severn and Avon Rivers. After heavy rain, Tewkesbury often makes national, and sometimes international, headlines when the rivers rise and cut all roads into it. The abbey looks spectacular from the air when surrounded by water, so news agencies often fly past for photographs.The abbey's monks used water to power their mill, and flour milling remained a local industry well into the 20th century. Other buildings, such as the abbey gate house, are also of an historic nature, and some of the houses in the town are of Tudor origin. Tewkesbury celebrates its historic heritage with major street fairs, including a medieval festival that attracts visitors from all over the world, and a mop fair (mop fairs were originally autumn hiring fairs for farm workers, though this is no longer a conspicuous feature of them). The Abbey Lawn Trust, originally funded by a United States benefactor, protects the area around the abbey from development.
The Rt Revd Rachel Treweek, Bishop of Gloucester; the Revd Paul Williams, vicar of Tewkesbury Abbey; Karen Vincent, churchwarden of Tewkesbury Abbey; Steve Grinrod, lay chair of Tewkesbury and Winchcombe Deanery Synod; the Revd Malc Allen, area dean; the Ven. Jackie Earle, archdeacon of Gloucester; the Ven. Phil Andrew, archdeacon of Cheltenham; the Revd David Coulton, abbey chaplain and succentor; three unnamed individuals representing the Three Kings: Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar; the abbey choir, Carleton Etherington, directing; Simon Ball, organist; Plus a further supporting cast of about 20 clergy in the procession, all wearing festive copes.
What was the name of the service?Epiphany Carol Service Attended by the Parishes of the Tewkesbury and Winchcombe Deanery.
How full was the building?
Packed. Nave and side aisles full. Hundreds of people.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
No, but the steady flow of people entering the building was generally directed with smiles by several stewards to areas of vacant seating.
Was your pew comfortable?
I was on a chair in a side aisle. It was comfortable enough once I had shifted the service booklet and an unlit candle off the seat and was able to sit down.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Anticipatory. There was a gentle buzz of conversation as people arrived, greeted each other, and admired the candle displays and festive decorations in the nave.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good evening, and a warm welcome to our Epiphany Carol Service."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
A special service booklet.
What musical instruments were played?
The church organ. This is the Milton Organ (so called because the English poet John Milton is reputed to have played it), originally built in 1631 for Magdalen College, Oxford, and sold to Tewkesbury Abbey in 1736. Various rebuilds followed over the years. The current instrument has four manuals and was rebuilt in 1997 by Kenneth Jones and Associates.
Did anything distract you?
The building. The size and beauty of the abbey building inspire awe, especially when every spare ledge, nook and cranny is ablaze with candles, which really draws attention to features of the architecture.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Exhilarating high Anglican: plenty of well-known seasonal carols/hymns chosen to enhance the message of the readings, and several processions at different points of the service (again to emphasise the theology underpinning the event). As mentioned above, the abbey's Epiphany service has a different theme each year. The 2018 theme was "The Twelve Days of Christmas." Many believe that the song of that name was written as a mnemonic aid for Catholic children learning their catechism (although no reliable scholarly source has ever been found to corroborate this belief, and in fact several definitive sources attribute the song to quite different origins). From 1558 until 1829, Roman Catholics in England were not permitted to worship openly. So, the story goes, someone during this time wrote "The Twelve Days of Christmas" with a surface meaning and also a deeper hidden meaning, with each element in the carol representing a religious reality. Thus, the partridge in the pear tree is Jesus, the five gold rings are the Bible books of the Pentateuch, the eleven pipers piping are the eleven faithful apostles, and so forth. At tonight's service, each verse was represented in candles somewhere within the abbey, such as the seven swans a-swimming all over the font and the nine ladies dancing in the tiny Beauchamp chapel. The latter were paper cut-out figures hanging on invisible strings that "danced" as they fluttered over the heat rising from candles below.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – The bishop preached and was clearly audible.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
It was described in the order of service as being a homily, not a sermon. Bishop Rachel summarised the message of the five Bible readings. Epiphany is a "light-bulb moment" when light comes into the world and overcomes darkness. As we set out into a new year, we don't know what we shall face, but however difficult things might get we should remember that the light of God is there with us, and darkness can never overcome it.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
All of it, really, because it was so well-organised. Everything just flowed. The service booklet made it clear where to stand, sit, light candles, etc., so one was always prepared for what came next. And the processions were magnificent. There was a particularly wonderful moment when the thurifer did a "double twirl" with the thurible as she went down our side aisle!
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
There was one little jolt of distraction at the point where the service booklet indicated a choir carol, but instead the bishop started her homily. I could not see the pulpit so I was not expecting the change of order. However, it was not really a case of "the other place," just a surprise.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
The service booklet clearly explained the post-service refreshments on offer and before the service started Father Paul mentioned them too, and gave clear directions how to find them in the church hall. He also invited everyone to look at the candle displays in the church after the service. There was no possibility of not knowing what to do after the service. Everyone followed instructions and there was much cheerful conversation along the way.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
No coffee. Delicious hot mulled wine and mince pies. Ideal before heading home on a cold frosty night!
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
10 – I am very tempted. The whole event felt so welcoming.
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 candle displays for the Twelve Days of Christmas, not least because of the many volunteers standing by to replace candles as they burned out, and chatting cheerfully to everyone passing by them to view.