|826: St Mary Redcliffe, Bristol, England|
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Mystery Worshipper: Sea of Tranquility.
The church: St Mary Redcliffe, Bristol, England.
Denomination: Church of England.
The building: The church is mainly 14th century perpendicular, with parts dating to the late 12th century. The exterior includes flying buttresses and a narrow spire 292 feet high, which can be seen from a distance despite all the modern buildings that surround it. The interior boasts a beautifully corbelled ceiling and fine vaulting. According to the brochure, Queen Elizabeth I described it as "the goodliest, fairest and most famous parish church in England". If your idea of good and fair is based on the best medieval cathedral architecture, then you will probably agree even today.
The church: The church is especially renowed for its music. There is an excellent choir (boys and men) and a splendid organ. The acoustics are truly to die for, and this probably helps to attract good musicians.
The neighbourhood: St Mary Redcliffe contrasts starkly with its neighbourhood. It is as beautiful and inspiring as the surrounding modern flats, retail units and car parks are dull and uninspiring.
The cast: The vicar: Rev. Tony Whatmough. Officiant: Mr Bryan Anderson.
What was the name of the service?
How full was the building?
Virtually empty. Scattered through the nave with a capacity for perhaps 1,000 were fewer than a dozen souls.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
We were greeted in a friendly manner by a woman who gave us our hymnbooks, and by another who acted as guide, asking about us, describing parts of the church she thought would be of interest, and helping us select a place to sit.
Was your pew comfortable?
We were seated in traditional wooden pews with long cushions – all reasonably comfortable. We could also have sat among the plastic chairs arrayed at the rear of the church. All seats had a good view of the proceedings at the front.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
When we arrived, there was a crowd at the back of the church chatting after the previous service, which clearly had attracted a much larger crowd. The gathering seemed very convivial. However, there were so few people in the rest of the church that the atmosphere there was more like that of a museum than a church – it was almost a surprise when the service started.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"A happy New Year to you all, and welcome to choral matins at St Mary Redcliffe church."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The Book of Common Prayer,and the New English Hymnal – words edition.
What musical instruments were played?
A marvellous organ.
Did anything distract you?
There was a sort of whispering whooshing sound at times during the service, and at first I feared that it had started to rain heavily outside. Eventually I realised that I was hearing it only during the musical interludes, and concluded that it must be the organ. There was also a beautiful sort of chandelier at the very front of the central aisle – it was rather like a huge wooden cartwheel on its side, decorated with Christmas greenery and large candles. I noticed partway through the service that it was very slowly spinning – round it would go one way, slow to a stop, then round the other way again. Mesmerising. I missed about half of one verse of the choir singing "In the bleak midwinter" just watching this thing. On a scale of 1 to 100 these distractions rated about a two. Throughout the service there was great calm and quiet.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The service was formal but simple. It followed a clear course, outlined in a leaflet, with beginning and ending processions, and a good deal of standing, sitting, praying, and singing... oh, and the odd spoken word. Yet although it was so "by the book" that a computer could have designed it, the service was performed simply and reverently, in a way that made it quite engaging and approachable.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
There was no sermon.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The singing was truly heavenly. The choir began singing while still out of sight at the front of the church, behind the screen, and their high, soft voices were like the songs of angels filtering down to us below. Except that it came from ahead of us – but really, it was magical. The high point of the service was the anthem "In the bleak midwinter". They sang a beautiful arrangement, singing in a church that would probably make even the most random local choir sound like professionals. Because it was a choral matins service, the choir featured heavily, and would have been worth coming to hear even if one had no other interest in the service.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Unfortunately I discovered too late, during prayer, that my kneeling cushion had no traction on the smooth wooden floor. I had placed it so that I leaned back against the pew seat behind me – and the cushion kept slipping forward, making a distinct noise each time it did so. This in a nearly empty church with fabulous acoustics. I tried throughout prayer to tense myself so that I wasn't pushing the cushion forward; I thought that getting off it and putting it where I could kneel upright would make even more noise. By the end of prayer my muscles ached – but I remembered to kneel upright after that.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
The vicar shook hands with us warmly after the service and was most pleasant, if not actually chatty. There were a couple of others standing around clearly available if anyone wanted to talk, or to guide tourists (the church is historically important, with connections to early seafaring and to America, as well as the commendation from QE I). We quickly struck up a very pleasant conversation. Although we could easily have escaped without talking to anyone but the vicar, I suspect that no one looking for a welcoming face after the service would be disappointed.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
None, and no invitation to the pub either. The service brochure indicates that there is coffee after the 9.30 sung eucharist – this would have been the crowd we saw when we first arrived.
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 If I lived in the area, I would not think twice about making this my local. With four services a day, fabulous music, a friendly congregation (as far as we could tell), and a fair amount of activity (the bulletin included notices of a lunch, a social evening, various recitals, and guides and scouts meetings), this church seems a very attractive proposition for anyone looking for good music and an earnest but unpompous approach to Christianity.
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 singing. It will probably get better every time I think back to it.