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465: St Mary's Priory Church, Abergavenny, Wales
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St Mary's Priory Church, Abergavenny, Wales
Mystery Worshipper: The Short and the Long.
The church: St Mary's Priory Church, Abergavenny, Wales.
Denomination: Church in Wales.
The building: A large, sandstone 14th-century building located near the centre of Abergavenny. It contains a large number of historical monuments, of which the congregation are obviously very proud, and restoration projects are underway for several of these. The sanctuary extends from the right-hand side of the front of the church rather than from the centre; those sitting on the left get a wonderful view of the organ pipes.
The church: This is a large parish church serving a busy market town. They seem to have a thriving youth section and choir, and according to the website do quite a bit of chaplaincy and community work.
The neighbourhood: Abergavenny is a market town in Monmounthshire, a very English part of Wales. In addition to the people of the town, there is a large farming community, which was quite badly affected by the foot-and-mouth outbreak last year.
The cast: Jeremy Winston, the vicar and main celebrant; a "Father Dominic", who was, we were told, leaving for Birmingham soon; and a "my young colleague".
What was the name of the service?
Midnight Mass.

How full was the building?
Absolutely packed. This appeared to be the main Christmas service, and the people were stuffed in.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
People were standing at the back of the church handing out service sheets as people came in. One of these wished us a Merry Christmas – there wasn't time to do more as a queue immediately began to form behind us. People in the pews were more concerned with making or saving space for people coming in than talking.

Was your pew comfortable?
Fairly standard wooden pew, with very squishy kneelers. The pews were almost – but not quite – wide enough apart for a tall person to kneel comfortably. The left side of the church (you remember, the one that faces the organ pipes) had chairs instead of pews.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
For the half hour preceding the service, carols were sung as people squashed themselves into the church. Even before this, the church was pretty full – those in the know come early to guarantee themselves a good seat. The vicar announced the carols, which appeared to be chosen at random.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good evening, and a very warm welcome to St Mary's for Midnight Mass." He went on to welcome those who had travelled great distances to be there.

What books did the congregation use during the service?
A service sheet printed especially for the event, which included all the carols.

What musical instruments were played?
Organ, and a good choir.

Did anything distract you?
There were two girls behind us who had good voices, but were trying to sing everything much too fast. We had to concentrate very hard to keep in time with the organ and choir.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Standard Christmas carols, sung well by the choir and the congregation. Short was especially pleased to have "On Christmas Night All Christians Sing".

Exactly how long was the sermon?
About 9 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – The first minute or so was taken up with thanking various people for various things, including the decorators of the church, the congregation (for all the nice Christmas presents they'd given him), and his assistants.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
He talked about how Christ was born an outcast so that we could be drawn into the love of God. He finished by saying: "Christ is born! Come let us adore him!"

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The moment when the lights came on during the singing of the Gloria. We'd been to a candlelit carol service on Sunday night a couple of days before, so to be lit solely by candles seemed quite natural to us – we didn't notice that the lights weren't on. When the lights came on we were surprised and delighted – and after a few minutes wondered how we could have stood the darkness.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The organist used an alternative harmony for the "sing, choirs of angels" verse of "O Come All Ye Faithful", so we didn't have the wonderful descant, which we missed keenly.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
There was no chance to hang around. As soon as the service ended, a conveyor belt appeared to start up in the aisle. Everyone shuffled along it, past all three vicars, shaking each hand in turn and being wished a happy christmas – and then we were spewed out into the car park outside. Everyone seemed to be going straight home, which was fair enough as it was by now about one in the morning. We learned a couple of days later that a friend had been there, but we hadn't had a chance to meet because of this conveyor belt.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
None, nor any chance for it.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – It's a bit large for my taste, although I suspect the normal Sunday complement is rather smaller than for a Christmas service. The comments made by the vicar during the sermon indicated that the congregation knew one another quite well.

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 lights coming on at the Gloria.
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