Wells Cathedral (Exterior)

Wells Cathedral, Wells, Somerset, England


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Wells Cathedral
Location: Wells, Somerset, England
Date of visit: Saturday, 19 April 2014, 9:00pm

The building

The website modestly proposes that this is "perhaps the most beautiful of the great English cathedrals." It's hard to say what criteria one would use for a league table of cathedral beauty, but no one can deny its majesty and the fascination of its history and design. Built from about 1175 on the site of an 8th century Saxon monastery, the Cathedral Church of St Andrew the Apostle became the first truly and fully Gothic church in England. At the time, the style was still new even in France, where it originated; so for the English, not much more than a century after the Norman Conquest swept away so much of their Saxon heritage, this was revolutionary – and probably designed to shock and awe. The first thing the worshipper would have seen is the massive west end, deliberately built wider than the body of the church to give an overwhelming impression of size, with its tier upon tier of saints, apostles and martyrs glaring at the humble sinner in Gothic admonition. Inside, the wonder continues with some of the most remarkable vaulting in England and the distinctive "scissor arches", a very clever architectural expedient hit upon to help support the enormous central tower when it threatened to collapse and bring down the whole church in the 14th century. Not as decorated and frilly as some cathedrals, Wells can still keep you occupied for several hours, inside and outside. Next to it there's the wonderful old ruined bishop's palace, surrounded by a moat with swans.

The church

They celebrate holy communion and cathedral eucharist each Sunday, as well as choral matins and choral evensong. Holy communion, matins and choral evensong are also held each weekday. Baptisms, weddings and funerals are available for anyone requesting same, no longer limited as they once were to persons living within the Liberty (immediate neighbourhood). They sponsor a full programme of concerts, recitals, lectures and exhibitions. I also got the impression that the cathedral functions as a parish church. At the same time, it does the cathedral thing with its museum, gift shop, guided tours and, of course, its famous choir.

The neighborhood

There has been a settlement here since Roman times. The city sits on the edge of the Mendip Hills in pastoral Somerset in the south-west of England. It's a tiny town to have such a big cathedral. Wells takes its name from three ancient wells in the town, all dedicated to St Andrew. A minster church similarly dedicated was founded here in 704. The cathedral faces a beautiful green surrounded by the houses of the clergy and the lucky rich. Mind you, Wells itself seems pretty well heeled – a gentle and genteel place with many older people and fewer children than the regional and national averages. That said, there are several well known schools, most amenities, decent restaurants, and a weekly farmers' market. And all that on a population of 11,000. It makes quite a contrast with its much grittier neighbour, Shepton Mallet.

The cast

The Rt Revd Peter Maurice, Bishop of Taunton; the Very Revd John Clarke, Dean of Wells; Matthew Owens, organist and master of the choristers. (Bishop of Taunton is the title given to suffragan bishops of Bath and Wells.)

What was the name of the service?

Easter Vigil.

How full was the building?

About 200 to 250 people who half filled the nave; also a cast of 40 musicians and half a dozen clergy. Most of the people who came to this service seemed to know each other.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Personally, not as such. There were two people handing out orders of service and candles as we arrived. Everybody queued up in the cloister until a very large (though friendly) man shepherded us outside through the west door. And there we stood, in front of the cathedral, for some ten minutes, on a decidedly brisk night, waiting for the proceedings to begin.

Was your pew comfortable?

No. The bare wooden chairs may be bearable for a regular service (just) but this one lasted almost two hours. Both my wife and I became very uncomfortable toward the end.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

As I said earlier, most of the congregation seemed to be locals, so there was a lot of chitchat. We overheard some discussion of a disagreement between the church commissioners and the new bishop concerning his place of residence (I understand the matter has since been satisfactorily resolved). There was a general air of anticipation for the start of the service, particularly after we'd been outside in the cold for a while.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, on this most holy night when our Lord Jesus Christ passed from death to life, the Church invites her children throughout the world to come together in vigil and prayer."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

There was a 20-page order of service with everything we needed, including some responsory music. As we had to hold candles throughout, juggling prayer books and hymnals would not have been fun.

What musical instruments were played?

The Easter vigil centres around music and the Word, and, this being a major cathedral, the music may have had a slight edge. There was the organ, a brass ensemble, and the cathedral choir of boys, girls and men.

Did anything distract you?

There were a few things. Outside, in front of the cathedral, we gathered in a semicircle around a small brazier filled with twigs. From this the paschal candle was to be lit. But when the fire ignited, the wind came up and the flames almost engulfed the dean and his subdeacon in mid-prayer. They had to beat a hasty retreat through smoke and fire lest their vestments catch alight. Someone hadn't thought that through properly. Once inside, with the huge church lit only by hundreds of candles, attention was easily focused on the meditative drama taking place in the chancel.

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

As this was a service of meditation, there was little ritual other than the procession of the paschal candle. After each choir piece, the bishop recited a collect in (to my ears) a rather detached way. At the Easter acclamation, there was a certain amount of handbell ringing by the clergy. And then there were, of course, the whooped-up readings (see below). Congregational participation was minimal; there was one hymn at the end.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

There was no sermon.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The cathedral was beautiful in the darkness, with myriad little lights and the anticipation of a great celebration.

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

Not really hellish – more of a distraction – but as a musician, I found much of the music disappointing. Instead of the beautiful and ancient Gregorian chant of the great Easter hymn, the Exsultet, we got a choral setting specially written for the cathedral choir. Now, call me an old reactionary – no, don't; I have no problem with new things – but if you're going to replace something ancient and beautiful with something new, it needs to be of equivalent artistic worth. This wasn't. It was an unfortunate pastiche of old and new styles – trite, forgettable, and way too long. And ditto, unfortunately, for the other commissioned music. Then things got bizarre: the Old Testament lessons were read by one of the priests in what I suspect was meant to be a dramatic delivery. From Genesis onwards, as soon as God spake, the organ spoke with Him, noodling around misterioso while the reader slowed down more and more. It was a little like a school play and quite unnecessary. More in the hellish department – the content and pace of the service made it go on almost twice its advertised length, and by the end, the cathedral chairs felt like instruments of torture. I thought the season of penance was over.

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

The service ended with a bang. After a considerable amount of processing around the church, we found ourselves back outside the west end for the dismissal. As we declared "He is risen indeed. Alleluia!", the bishop swung round and faced the cathedral green. Suddenly from the dark there was an eruption of fireworks (for which I am a sucker, although I must have missed that rubric in the Prayer Book). We went "Ooh! Ahh!", then we dispersed.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

No refreshments. But after all that we badly needed a drink, so we hurried to the pub next to the cathedral only to find that the miserable place had already closed – before 11.00 on a Saturday night! A few other couples coming up the street behind us were similarly disappointed.

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

5 – I would need to experience some more regular services before I made any judgement. The sense of community appears strong. The choir has a top flight reputation, although I don't know that they were at their best that night.

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

Well, yes – although I think this service would have confused the wits out of any non-Anglican.

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

The organ accompanying the Voice of God.

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