Situated on the high street and surrounded by shops, All Saints is very much a city centre church. Dating from the 13th century, it presents a friendly face of pinkish sandstone to the street, one of many old buildings in the city centre that jostle alongside new premises. The tall but slightly crooked spire of All Saints is a conspicuous landmark of the city centre. Inside it is spacious and has some fine fittings. But what is most striking to the first-time visitor is that the whole of the west end of the nave is a bustling and well patronised cafe with gallery seating at a higher level in the aisle. Only the spacious sanctuary, Lady chapel, and side chapel remain in liturgical use. The mix of uses works well visually and without there being any obvious dividing line between the cafe and sanctuary. The two uses are clear: when sitting in the café, one can tell that the sanctuary retains a sense of being a separate and dedicated holy space.
The partial change of use to cafe was prompted by the fact that, like many city centre churches, this one has lost the residential population that once surrounded it, driven out by the change to almost exclusively retail and office use of the city centre. Now part of a group ministry of four churches, All Saints finds its public by welcoming them for food and daily lunchtime services. Other Hereford churches in the group cater to the residential population on Sundays. All Saints was widely celebrated as a successful example of multiple uses when the cafe first opened two decades ago.
Hereford, very close to the Welsh border, sits at one vertex of an equilateral triangle, with Worcester and Gloucester being at the other two vertices. The hardy breed of beef cattle known as Hereford originated here and has been exported to almost every beef-eating country worldwide. The region enjoys a maritime climate with limited temperature ranges and moderate rainfall – hurricanes hardly ever happen here. Hereford is home to several breweries producing beer, ale and cider. The church has no burial ground and is therefore hard on the street, with outside tables that would be attractive in warmer weather. A large sign on the church advertises the All Saints cafe and it fits well into the retail scene. Smaller signs indicate that it is also a working church and give the times of services.
The Rosary Group, who on this day numbered two, plus myself.
What was the name of the service?Praying the Rosary.
How full was the building?
The cafe at the west end was already pretty full with lunchtime customers. The sanctuary of the church and Lady chapel were empty but for a bearded gent who sat in a small circle of chairs before a lighted candle on a pricket candlestick close to the altar steps. We were later joined by a woman, but other group regulars did not materialise that day, so we were three in number.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Because I was looking for the Rosary Group, the chairs occupied by the gentleman by the candle were immediately obvious to me as the setting for it. As I approached, he welcomed me cordially, gave me his name, and asked if I was there for the Rosary Group. He offered me a seat and, while we waited for the appointed time, chatted about how the group met and prayed.
Was your pew comfortable?
We sat in a square on comfortable chairs round the flickering candle.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The background noise from the cafe was considerable. Nobody was rowdy, but sounds from the busy kitchen and servery, together with conversation of 70 or so people enjoying lunch, set the tone. All Saints is a spacious and lofty church, and that helps absorb the sound. Even so, those who like silence for prayer would be disappointed here, at any rate at lunchtime.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
‘In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.’
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The bearded gent asked me – as their guest – if I wanted to use the traditional Rosary or the Peace Rosary, a more modern form they sometimes use in its place. I said the choice should be theirs. He chose the traditional form, opining that I would likely be more familiar with the prayers (I was).
What musical instruments were played?
Did anything distract you?
Having mentioned them already, I should say that the background cafe sounds did not, slightly to my surprise, distract me. Perhaps this is because I regularly practice meditation – I have learned how to tune out random distractions. What did distract me was counting the Hail Marys in the Rosary prayer itself. The Hail Mary is recited ten times in each cycle of prayer (each one known as a decade). The bearded gent had lent me a spare set of beads to assist this process, and of course it is the repetition at speed that many find the comforting aspect of the Rosary. Perhaps regular practice would mean that counting becomes more intuitive – and therefore less distracting.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
This was only the third time I have used the Rosary as a prayer format. It is intimate and ritualistic. Though we were doing it collectively in a small group, it struck me as a fairly private form of spiritual practice. The decades of the Rosary were punctuated by the Mysteries read by the lady next to me. From the options available – Glorious, Joyful, Luminous and Sorrowful – she chose to say the Joyful Mysteries (the Annunciation, the Visitation, the Birth of Our Lord, the Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple, the Finding of Our Lord in the Temple).
Exactly how long was the sermon?
There was none.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The sense of calm that our small group engendered was tangible.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Not hellish at all – but towards the end of our session, delicious food smells intruded. I found these a distraction that, unlike the general cafe bustle, refused to be dismissed.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
We three shook hands and I was welcomed to join them if I was again visiting Hereford. I was given the sheet we had used and the alternative Peace Rosary that they had not used that day (which I read later and which included a discussion of how to approach the Rosary as well as how to do it). I looked around the church interior, purchased some Christmas cards in the pop-up shop, and then bought lunch at the cafe.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
The lamb hotpot I opted for was very tasty; it was that that piqued my senses in the Rosary. Coffee for desert was excellent too: for me it was decaf, but it tasted like proper grown up coffee.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 — I was at this session just dipping my toe in the water of this form of spiritual practice and I found it more tempting than I felt it would be. The welcome and non-pushy friendliness were outstanding. I think it would take a number of visits before I could transcend worry about the counting and I could be sure about whether it’s right for me as a spiritual practice.
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 way All Saints, a church in the Anglican Catholic tradition, is taking its mission to the high street. We tuned out from the nearby activity to make our own intimate and connected space.