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712: Hexham Abbey, Hexham, Northumberland, England
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Hexham Abbey
Mystery Worshipper: Visiting chorister.
The church: Hexham Abbey, Hexham, Northumberland, England.
Denomination: Church of England.
The building: Hexham Abbey is an imposing building right by the market place. There has been worship on this site for over 1,300 years. First in a Saxon church (crypt and apse are still there, below the present building), then as a Benedictine monastery from around 1170, a parish church since the Reformation, thorough Victorian rebuilding and extension to the nave, to a fairly recent chapel for private prayer. There is now a superb circular nave altar at the crossing, with a semi-circular communion rail and kneeler. The choir chairs are in a semi-circle behind this altar in front of the chancel screen, over which the organ is centrally placed (with the swell box slightly distractingly opening and closing in full view). There is a good sound system for speakers and a colourful banner hanging by the pulpit desk.
The church: There was a wide mixture of ages present. The abbey has a high choral tradition, and the pew sheet contained details of an annual pilgrimage, a choir outing and the visits of other choirs to sing services. I also noticed a strong commitment to fair trade. Finally, the church is involved heavily in an ecumenical holiday club for school age and a youth event for the slightly older, during the school holidays. The parish is currently between rectors.
The neighbourhood: Hexham is a major market town and important tourist centre surrounded by upland farms.
The cast: The Ven. Peter Elliot, Archdeacon of Northumberland, celebrated and preached. The service was introduced and the notices given by the associate vicar, Rev. Dagmar Winter. Lay members Elizabeth Box and Rachel Haywood Smith read the first reading and led intercessions respectively.
What was the name of the service?
Parish eucharist.

How full was the building?
The long nave was two-thirds full. People entered and left from both the tourist south transept and also another door at the west end of the nave.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
I received smiles from those handing out hymnbooks and service sheets. We were early and they were still collating the book and two handouts.

Was your pew comfortable?
Comfortable enough for a one-hour service. It was a standard pew with a runner.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quiet and respectful as folks entered from both doors.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning and welcome to this service on the Fifth Sunday after Trinity. It's also the first Sunday of the school holidays, which is why we have no choir. But we do have the archdeacon with us today."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
New English Hymnal; a parish printed service from Common Worship and a pew sheet with hymn numbers, names of leaders and lots of news and notices.

What musical instruments were played?
Only an organ.

Did anything distract you?
Hard of hearing elderly parishioners chatting loudly after receiving communion.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The service sheet noted that "the choir may sing the Gloria and other sections of the service in traditional settings or in Latin", which seems to about sum it up.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
14 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – He was well adapted to the large building, but would have scored an 8 if he'd edited a little more vigorously.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
"Many were coming and going and they had no leisure" was the text from the Gospel. He drew three pictures from this story: stress/pressure of life; learning while on the boat (as the disciples had as boys from their fisherman fathers); and seeking God in the wilderness (which is where Israel had always met God). This was summed up with the rule of Benedict: work, study, pray.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
When most people stood up at the start of the play-over for the first hymn (they can't all have been visiting choristers like us!).

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
When the first hymn stopped after three verses of the five – a fact mentioned on the pew sheet – and many of the more elderly near us, and the visiting celebrant, looked surprised!

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
We joined the after service drinks group in the south transept where we were offered drinks and biscuits. Over the next five minutes, three different members of the regular congregation came up to talk to us.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
The choices were orange juice (in plastic cups or glasses), or coffee or tea in styrofoam cups, as well as biscuits.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 – Although I enjoy good church music, I might be irritated by the choir hi-jacking portions of the service.

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

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The three points of the sermon.
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