You would think you were looking at a cathedral – indeed, the Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin is actually larger than 14 cathedrals and is the second largest abbey in the country. Construction started in 1087 on the site of a Saxon abbey, and the large Romanesque tower that dominates the abbey was completed in the 12th century. As you enter, the first sight to amaze you is the immense nave with a high vaulted ceiling supported by great Norman columns. As you approach the high altar, you can see beautiful stained glass windows on either side, but the east window, in which Christ stands between St Mary the Virgin and St Michael the Archangel, is outstanding. The main benefactors were the noble families the de Clares, the Despencers and the Beauchamps, and they built many chantries and chapels around the altar and choir area as well as having themselves entombed there. On top of a chantry facing the high altar there is a statue called The Kneeling Knight that depicts Lord Edward Despenser in full armour kneeling in prayer.
After the dissolution of the monasteries in which the monastic buildings and Lady chapel were destroyed, the townspeople purchased the abbey from Henry VIII so that they could use it as their parish church. It serves as such to this day, although, because of its architectural magnificence and historical connections, it also attracts many tourists. It is a favourite venue for concerts, hosting many BBC recording sessions. Shakespearean and other dramatic performances are also frequent. Morning prayer, holy communion and evensong are celebrated each day, with several eucharistic celebrations each Sunday. They offer junior church and other activities for young people.
The abbey is located away from the Tewkesbury town centre on the road to Gloucester, close to the river Avon. The area is not residential. There is a school next door and a pub opposite, but the abbey is otherwise surrounded by shops and restaurants. At the back there are fields and meadows. Tewkesbury is a pleasant well kept market town with a lot of history and a well-to-do air about it. The battle of Tewkesbury took place nearby in 1471 and the defeated Lancastrians sought sanctuary in the abbey, where they were pursued by the victorious Yorkists. However, although the abbot pleaded for the slaughter to stop, they were dragged out of the abbey to be executed in the town centre.
The Revd Canon Paul Williams was the celebrant and preacher. He was assisted by two other clergy but I was unable to find out their names.
What was the name of the service?Sung Eucharist with Festal Entry.
How full was the building?
Surprisingly and disappointingly, only about a third full – I would say there were about 150 people in the congregation. There was a complete mix of ages from young to old. I would say most were well dressed.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
There was a team of sidespersons giving out hymn books and service leaflets. I was greeted with "Good morning."
Was your pew comfortable?
This was about the most comfortable I have ever been in a church. We had very comfortable chairs; the back of the chair in front contained space for books and leaflets and the kneeler was slotted in underneath. The kneeler was the most comfortable kneeler I have ever knelt on! It was deeply cushioned and springy.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
It was quiet and reverential.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning and welcome to Tewkesbury Abbey on this Holy Cross Day."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The English Hymnal. We were handed a specially printed service leaflet that listed the mass setting, the hymns, the collect, the readings, the psalm and the gospel. There was also a leaflet entitled Welcome to Tewkesbury Abbey that was mainly about parish news.
What musical instruments were played?
One of the abbey's three pipe organs, this one dating from the 17th century and reputed to have been played on by the poet John Milton; hence it is often called the Milton organ. The history of the instrument is long and fascinating and is detailed on the abbey's website.
Did anything distract you?
When the choir sang Psalm 22, either the choir was singing too softly or the organist was playing too loudly, but I couldn't make out a word of it! It was a good job the leaflet contained the words of the psalm! At first I thought the choir should be singing better and I should be hearing soaring sopranos and resonant basses. Then I had to pinch myself and remind myself that this was not a cathedral choir but a humble church choir and that they were doing their best. On reflection, I think the organist should have played more quietly, but I suppose she was just enjoying herself on that magnificent organ.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was glorious Anglo-Catholicism at its very best. The procession of clergy and choir was led by a thurifer and boat girl, followed by the crucifer flanked by two servers, then the clergy and choir. But the thurible wasn't just swung, it was rotated in complete vertical revolutions the whole time. I must admit I thought to myself, "I wouldn't like to get in his way!" The service was the traditional form of Order 1 from Common Worship and was most reverential and dignified. The collect was chanted and the Bible was carried with great solemnity to the west end where the gospel passage was chanted. There was much censing, genuflecting and crossing. The sun shone through the medieval windows, and I felt I was in heaven.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 – Canon Williams spoke eloquently and clearly and did not appear to follow any notes. He produced a well prepared sermon. He didn't crack any jokes or tell any anecdotes, which I think would have been inappropriate. I was not watching the reaction of other people and can only tell you that my companion didn't fall asleep. The canon certainly held my attention, and I doubt if anyone else could have put his points across more succinctly or in a shorter time.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
It was a comparison between Cicero's view that crucifixion was barbaric and cast doubt on the Roman claim of civilization, and Paul's view that it is a message of hope and a sign of love. We need hope to give us shape and direction in our lives. But when we hope we become vulnerable. Some people give up hope to avoid disappointment, but to lose hope is to die in the midst of life. He referred to the reading from Numbers 21:4-9 (Moses was ordered by God to make a bronze serpent to act as a saviour). God then sent his only son, who suffered death, even death on a cross, so that in his resurrection hope was born again. He concluded that Cicero was wrong and Paul was right.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The procession, the ceremonial actions, the reverential demeanour, the beautiful elicitation of the prayers, the sun shining through the windows. I was in heaven for the entire service.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
At times I felt the organ was being played too loudly and sometimes, surprisingly, the acoustics seemed to prevent some readings being heard clearly.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
After the service, the congregation were invited to attend the internment of the ashes of a local lady. Some people left (I assume those who knew her) and some remained (I should think those remaining were all visitors). As soon as the service had ended, fresh tourists flooded in.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There wasn't any, but there is a nearby refectory where you can purchase all sorts of refreshments.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
10 – If I lived in Tewkesbury I would definitely make this my regular place of worship.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. It was a most uplifting and heavenly experience.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
That thurifer rotating his censer in huge circles when leading the procession and miraculously without incident!