|777: Alton Abbey, Beech, Hampshire, England|
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Mystery Worshipper: Succentor.
The church: Alton Abbey, Beech, Hampshire, England.
Denomination: Church of England.
The building: Alton Abbey is one of the few Anglican monasteries in the UK. The monks have made their home here since the end of the 19th century. The Abbey and its church form a picturesque group in a rural Hampshire village. The precincts are entered through a new gateway, although the splendid original mock-medieval gatehouse stands nearby. The Abbey Church is a stately stone building with a beautifully maintained interior dominated by a heavy, beamed roof and stone choir-screen and painted rood above. The monastic choir has been relocated in the nave where the light oak stalls and altar blend nicely with the rest of the building. The old high altar seen in the distance through the gates in the screen makes a dramatic backdrop to the whole thing. Lovely!
The church: The monks originally ministered to the seafaring community and indeed for many years ran a home for retired seafarers. Nowadays, the community has become more monastic and enclosed and has adopted a form of Benedictine spirituality. As with all monastic houses, there is a real sense of peace and tranquillity further enhanced by the beautiful grounds. A real joy to visit and well worth the detour.
The neighbourhood: Beech is a tranquil, beautiful, isolated village near to the home of Jane Austen. The whole area is known as Jane Austen country. Indeed, one of the monks is an authority and conducts Jane Austen retreats.
The cast: The officiant was the Abbot of Alton, Rt. Rev. Giles Hill OSB.
What was the name of the service?
How full was the building?
There were four monks and one guest in the choir and about 10 people in the nave. Given it was a weekday evening and the monastery is quite rural, there were more present than I expected.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes. As we entered, a woman told us the service would start in about 10 minutes. We entered the church and took our seats after taking our service book from a pile on the side. The monks had thoughtfully opened all the books at the correct place.
Was your pew comfortable?
Yes. The seats were new padded affairs, and very comfortable, too, even for the more ample mystery worshipper.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
There was much scuttling of monks and guests through the quiet as they arrived for the Office. I was surprised to see the Abbot ringing the tower bell before coming to officiate.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"O God, make speed to save us."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
We used a home-made ring binder containing the Offices.
What musical instruments were played?
None. Apart from the Office Hymn, the whole service was said. I must say that I had hoped at least for intoned psalms.
Did anything distract you?
Yes: the beauty of the building. Also, one of the monks got quieter and quieter as he answered the psalms, to the point we could barely hear him compared to the lusty voices of the others. Another of the monks had a nasty case of nose-blowing; it was so regular that I almost looked to see if it appeared in the printed liturgy!
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Understated monastic worship without any fuss or frills. It was clearly fulfilling the monks duty to offer the opus Dei and not to pander to us in the pews.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
There was no sermon.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Sharing in the worship of a unique religious community. The sense of spirituality was powerful and I was moved by thoughts of the struggle to establish and maintain monasticism in the Church of England over the last 130 years. It is a sign of the power of God that such communities still exist.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The snorting of the monk. More seriously, though, despite having been a novice monk myself, I felt strongly that Succentor Two and I were intruding in a family act of worship.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
The Abbot said, "hello," and took our service books from us. We were then able to wander around the church and cloister enjoying the beautiful building and the evening sun.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none for us, but I suspect the community all nipped into the enclosure for tea and buns!
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
6 I think sharing in monastic worship is a privilege to be enjoyed sparingly.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Oh yes! But it made me acutely aware of my spiritual imperfections.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The sense of tranquillity that descended upon the monastery after the service had ended.