St Mary's, Tenby, Pembrokeshire, Wales

St Mary's, Tenby, Pembrokeshire, Wales


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Mystery Worshipper: Fox's Friend
Church: St Mary's
Location: Tenby, Pembrokeshire, Wales
Date of visit: Friday, 17 August 2007, 10:00am

The building

It appears that a church existed on the site as far back as the 12th century. Much of the present building, said to be the largest parish church in Wales, spans the Norman and Tudor periods. The tower is older than most other parts of the church, and in fact older than most other church towers in Pembrokeshire. The interior of the church is filled with light pouring through large windows, and includes several interesting chapels and tombs as well as mysterious stairways to nowhere and blocked-off doorways.

The church

The Tenby community is very much involved in the running of the church, with a range of rotas for various duties and both young children and older people directly involved in the service. A local group has made a series of banners for this and other local churches – amazing pieces that wonderfully illustrate passages from scripture.

The neighborhood

Tenby is a relatively small seaside town, the population of which must double or triple in the summer holiday season. There is a lifeboat station near the harbour and there is very strong support for the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI), a charity that saves lives at sea around the coasts of Great Britain and Ireland. Tenby was the home of Robert Recorde (1510-1558), the Elizabethan scholar who introduced the equals sign to mathematical calculation.

The cast

The Revd Dennis Baxter, curate.

What was the name of the service?

Sung Eucharist.

How full was the building?

The church must be able to seat rather more than 200 people easily – I would estimate there were at least 100 there for the service, so it was well attended, but spacious with room for plenty more.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

We were welcomed by the lady handing out the hymnbooks, but as there was quite a queue to get in (narrow door, big church, lots of people) her greeting was fairly impersonal. Another woman, who sat behind my sister and me, was very helpful when we couldn't find the page in the prayer book, and greeted us both warmly during the peace.

Was your pew comfortable?

The pews were solid wood but with nice cushions, so we were very comfortable. The cushion on our particular pew was slightly longer than the pew itself.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

There was a sense of everyone getting organised (many members of the congregation were directly involved in the service) and some people meeting up for a chat. Gradually, everyone settled down, but there were a few left scurrying for a seat when the service began. There was a children's area inside the church (nice that they weren't taken out to somewhere else) with a couple of smaller persons having what seemed to be an interesting time.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Let us bow our heads in prayer."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Book of Common Prayer and the New English Hymnal.

What musical instruments were played?

A rather fine organ.

Did anything distract you?

I found the wonderful banners around the church, made by a group of local ladies, a very happy distraction. They were hand sewn, and as a keen sewer I couldn't help wondering about how they had been made. Each bore a quote from scripture – for example, on one: "They shall grow not old" and a field of poppies.

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

Very formal! I am used to a more relaxed style, so the procession of two white-robed acolytes with candles (very well behaved children) and the celebrant, and all the singing, was a bit of a difference! I enjoyed the service very much, but was distracted by trying to work out where in the prayer book I should be looking.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

18 minutes.

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

9 – In a very formal service, the preacher was refreshingly informal, with a direct message delivered in a friendly style with lots of relevant examples. The sermon really spoke to me and felt personal, not from a book but from the heart.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Don't just read scripture and think, "That's that,"or rely on others to tell you what it means, when the meaning is not obvious. Think about it, and ask God to help you to discern what it means for you and your life. We should be listening to the Holy Spirit, and the preacher is not the Holy Spirit! The Spirit may also speak to us at any place or time – not just in a church on a Sunday, but in the fish and chip shop queue, at a football match, or anywhere else.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

I loved the sense of light and space in the church, and the way that the snippets of scripture in the banners were scattered around. Wherever I looked, there were messages of hope and a sense of glory. I also loved the way in which young people were so involved and took their role so seriously.

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

Getting lost in the prayer book. It has been a while since I had to use the book during a service, and I had forgotten just how many pages may be needed (and how many won't be!) and how the service goes without the security blanket of the right page. We were well into the service before I could keep up.

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

We tried to hang around, but were encouraged to leave! Apparently the curate had to get to another church quickly for another service, so there was no coffee or discussion. That was a shame, as there was much about the service and the church that I would have liked to discuss with more regular participants, and we needn't have had a clergyman there to do that.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Sadly, there was none.

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

8 – I did enjoy the formality of the service as a change to my more informal regular worship, but was particularly struck by the sermon. I would have liked to hear more from the curate, as he was very thought-provoking. An excellent thing in a preacher!

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

Yes! The setting was magnificent and definitely added to the sense of occasion in the worship. There was a real sense of connection to the reality of God in our lives during the sermon, which has stayed with me.

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

I'll be listening for the Holy Spirit while looking for a chip shop!

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