The church was designed in 1868 by the Victorian champion of the Gothic Revival style, Charles Francis Hansom. It replaced a church erected a few years earlier that had been destroyed by fire. Only the tower and spire from the original building remain. Hansom employed a heavy geometrical style in locally quarried pennant sandstone, with carvings in bath stone. The lovely interior with large arcades and small round piers and a clerestory and tall chancel is in red sandstone, with red granite ornamentation. There are some wonderful mosaics by James Powell and Sons, also known as Whitefriars Glass, of London. The colours are lovely! The stained glass is by Hardman & Co. of Birmingham, one of the world's leading producers of ecclesiastical glass until its dissolution in 2008. The chancel, once filled with elaborate and richly coloured designs, was subject to a major redecoration in 1997.
St Paul's was formerly the church of the University of Bristol and even today boasts of the quality of its music, as provided by students from the university during term time. Today St Paul's is part of the benefice of St Paul's and Cotham. They sponsor a number of groups, including Emmaus groups that (quoting from their website) "exist to support and encourage people on their spiritual journey." For children there is the Fish Club, which (again quoting from their website) "explores the Christian faith in a variety of ways" as well as "organises social events throughout the year including film nights, BBQs, bowling and a weekend camp." For adults they sponsor lunchtime concerts and film nights. They offer sung compline most Friday evenings and sung eucharist each Sunday. The church appears to have a catholic liberal approach and an open welcome to all.
Clifton is one of the oldest and most affluent areas of Bristol. St Paul's is situated in the Victorian part of Clifton near the university buildings. It is also student land and the students have a reputation of deriving from the upper classes. The area is predominantly upper class rather than middle you would need a few million to live in the large Georgian Victorian houses!
The Revd Ginny Royston, assistant curate. Rob Dimbleby, licensed lay minister, was the preacher. It was the first Sunday in the new term at university, and the student choir sang the service. The vicar, the Revd Richard Holroyd, was present but did not take part in the service.
What was the name of the service?Choral Evensong.
How full was the building?
A congregation of about 25 and choir of 20, which is very good for a Bristol church! Also a dog, who seemed to enjoy the service! It would appear that most of the congregation were well-to-do from the university.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
I got to the church at 5.40 and waited outside the locked door of the porch. I was welcomed in by the church warden.
Was your pew comfortable?
Standard Victorian pew, quite comfortable though.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The organist was having a run through his voluntary. Various students came in to fetch their music. The pre-music was modern and quite haunting as the dusk outside the Gothic windows descended into darkness. The choir filed in and sat around the central altar.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Welcome to St Paul's."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The Book of Common Prayer and, I think, Hymns For Today.
What musical instruments were played?
A magnificent three manual organ, rebuilt in 1975 by Percy Daniel & Co. Ltd, Clevedon. At times it roared, at times it whispered. The service music itself was unaccompanied, as was the anthem by Anton Bruckner.
Did anything distract you?
There was a very heavy smell of perfume coming from somewhere. The church had an aroma of Harrods which, given the location and apparent demographic of the congregation, would have been entirely appropriate! Also the Powell mosaics and loveliness of the Victorian building couldn't fail to distract one.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was what I call University Chapel Anglican in style although the church is no longer the university chaplaincy. I would describe it as modern catholic. The curate stopped one hymn because she thought she had announced the wrong hymn number but hadn't!
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 – I thought it was quite academic in style with some humour mixed in – well suited to the academic congregation and choir present!
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
It was about Luke the physician and the book of Ecclesiastes. Ecclesiastes apparently wasn't liked by Martin Luther, who called it incoherent (although he may have been referring to the apocryphal Ecclesiasticus). Modern medicine has seen many advances, and there are many physicians who identify themselves with God. But Ecclesiastes teaches that man was not made for selfish achievement or gratification, but to fulfill God's plan through obedience. Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science, lived at a time when science didn't know all the answers and it still doesn't! But science and Christianity aren't mutually opposed. Give each the respect that is due to it.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The music without a doubt! Unfortunately a written musical program hadn't been made available, although the various offerings were mentioned at the beginning of the service. The choir sounded like it had been transported from Cambridge or Oxford, and the music really gave a sense of awe sometimes lacking in today's church music! Also the hymns, including the fantastic "All my hope on God is founded", allowed a good opportunity for the congregation to get with the spirit of the service.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
I'm not a big fan of perfume, I'm afraid. I'm not sure where it was coming from, but it didn't have the same reverent effect as incense!
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
The church warden did a good job of making me feel welcome! I took some pictures of the Powell mosaics and chatted with the vicar about the building.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
No coffee today.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 – A wonderful building, choir and music. I liked the liberal ethos and general inclusiveness of the church.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, it certainly did!
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The music and the mosaics!