St Mary's, Thornbury, Gloucestershire, England

St Mary's, Thornbury, Gloucestershire, England


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Mary's
Location: Thornbury, Gloucestershire, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 27 November 2005, 6:00pm

The building

St Mary's is situated close to Thornbury Castle and can be seen from various parts of town and also across the fields not far from the river Severn. It is a very beautiful structure and is quite eye-catching. The body of the church dates from the late 15th century, but some parts are thought to date as far back as the 12th century. The church's oldest features are its Norman doorway and second pointed chancel. Its 16th century tower includes pinnacles and battlements similar to those of Gloucester Cathedral. The most amusing feature of the church is a pair of bare female breasts on a tomb in the south chancel. It all looked quite marvelous by the candlelight of the evening's Advent service.

The church

This is a church that tries to cater to everyone. Services at St Mary's appear to be middle-of-the-road in style, although there was some incense used on the evening I attended. Among numerous parish activities, they sponsor an Out and About Luncheon Club and take great pains to try to participate in a variety of community events.

The neighborhood

Thornbury is a small market town about 11 miles north of Bristol. It used to be a very small rural place with Cotswold gable style cottages and some fine 18th century houses. However, the town expanded greatly during the 20th century but suprisingly has not been overspoiled, nor has it suffered from the difficulties faced by some other towns. Generally it is middle England at its most typical.

The cast

The Rev. David Primrose, vicar, led the service. The organist was the very talented Ray Hillman.

What was the name of the service?

Advent Service of Light

How full was the building?

The nave was well filled out – about 50 or so people.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Yes. Someone handed me a candle holder and showed me to a pew. A lady occupying the pew gave me a friendly greeting.

Was your pew comfortable?

Not bad. The Victorian pews blended well with the architecture. I gather there was some controversy about trying to replace them with modern seating but the plan was stopped. That would have been a crime!

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Friendly, expectant. No organ music initially. Various people were chatting and playing with the candle holders. Eventually the lights went out, and as people lit their candles the light began to spread! As the thurifer passed in procession, a lady called out, "Swing it!" She must have wanted to get high a bit quicker!

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"The Lord is my light and salvation."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Hymns Ancient and Modern plus a service leaflet. Juggling these along with the candle took some doing, and I thought at one stage there was going to be a fire!

What musical instruments were played?

For the hymns, a large pipe organ built by the distinguished firm of Percy Daniel & Co. Ltd. The Palestrina settings of the verses and responses were unaccompanied.

Did anything distract you?

The atmosphere of the building was the main distraction. The sound of unaccompanied music in candlelight in a 15th century church was very moving indeed. The mystery of the words, connecting as they did the past, present and future, sounded almost haunting – words like "I see the power of the Lord coming like a huge cloud covering the whole earth."

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

Good traditional Church of England worship with a bit of incense.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

No sermon.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The music, without a doubt. The Palestrina responses, evoking a time just a bit later than when this church was built. The anthem A Tender Shoot by Otto Goldschmidt, which sounded superb. Watching the shadows in a medieval church chasing each other in the candlelight. The awsome grandeur of the words of the service. I wonder sometimes whether we haven't turned God into a pet. But here was some mature Christianity, something I believe those of us living in the current world could use a bit more of!

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

Being surrounded by so many strangers! I'm used to small congregations where everyone knows each other. Also I kept worrying I would set the church alight throughout the service. And I wondered if the congregation's attempt to harmonise the hymns measured up to the high musical standards of the service.

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

A lady invited me to go for some wine. But being a shy soul and wanting to get back, I tried to sneak out the door. Father Primrose wouldn't have it, however – he ushered me to the drinks and mince pies and saw to it that I was engaged in conversation. The organist, Mr Hillman, joined us in chat.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There were mince pies and mulled wine served by the half-cup – everyone must have feared that the wine's effect would sneak up on them! But the refreshments were far preferable to those available at the castle next door, where you have to mortgage your house to be able to afford them!

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

9 – I am ashamed to say that even though this has been my home parish for five years, I had never before attended a service here. Oh, what I've been missing!

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

It certainly did! The music and message offered a more mature experience of God than the twangy-guitar atmosphere I am more accustomed to. It proved that beauty and imagination in worship can still be found!

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

The music and the shadows chasing each other in the candlelight.

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