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  1277: St Mary, Hay-on-Wye, Brecknockshire, Wales

St Mary, Hay-on-Wye, Brecknockshire, Wales
Photo: Jack Tait

Mystery Worshipper: Og the King of Bashan.
The church: St Mary, Hay-on-Wye, Brecknockshire, Wales.
Denomination: The Church in Wales.
The building: : Dating from the 12th century, the church was rebuilt in 1833 after ages of neglect and improved upon throughout the remainder of the 19th century. The result is a mixture! The grey stone 15th century crenelated tower stands in contrast to a rather plain early 19th century galleried nave. It looks Gothic on the outside but very much a plain Protestant plaster preaching church on the inside. But the east end features a high Victorian apse and a rather intimate and very splendid altar, with six gold candlesticks standing on a stone ledge behind it. Standard (but not offensive) Victorian stained glass, encaustic red tiles around the chancel, and a very interesting polychromatic marble pulpit finish off the decor. All in all, good solid Oxford Movement furnishings.
The church: Originally a part of the Church of England, the Church in Wales became separate in 1920 and today is an independent province of the Anglican communion. St Mary's is decidedly Anglo-Catholic – nothing out of the ordinary if you're used to this style of worship, but somewhat dazzling to those who are not. They sponsor several social and church-related groups.
The neighbourhood: Hay-on-Wye dates back to pre-Roman times and is known as the "book town" (tref y llyfrau), with as many as 39 bookshops. At its best, Hay is a lovely little place, surrounded by rolling hills (with a light dusting of snow!) leading to the beauties of the Golden Valley. At worst, it's just another grey Welsh border town.
The cast: The Rev. Richard Williams, vicar.
The date & time: Ash Wednesday, 1 March 2006, 8.00pm.

What was the name of the service?
Ash Wednesday Mass.

How full was the building?
The apse was completely full; the rest of the capacious nave completely empty! Twenty-six people were at the service, plus priest and thurifer.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
Well, a large friendly grey poodle came up to me in the church porch and wagged its tail, for a start. He seemed to be part of the fixtures and fittings of the church (of which more later). I was surprised to recognise several members of the choir from my involvement in the local choral society! They were, of course, all over me in a flash, and rustled up a hymnal with harmonic parts for me. I tried my best to conceal the fact that I was there to mystery worship!

Was your pew comfortable?
As comfortable as lovely solid reassuring Victorian oak gets – but clearly not designed for people over six feet tall.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quiet, dark, reverent, incense-filled and candle-lit. Here and there in the otherwise gloomy nave there were votive candle stands, including a beautiful shrine to the Virgin Mary. But my eyes were drawn to the beautifully decorated apse, where the congregation were cheerfully squeezed into the pews closest to the altar.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Forty days and forty nights thou wast fasting in the wild" – sung as a solo by a soprano with a lovely clear voice. The first spoken words were "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
The Book of Common Prayer for the Use of the Church in Wales. Also the New English Hymnal.

What musical instruments were played?
All the service was unaccompanied, including the hymns. Ash Wednesday and all that.

Did anything distract you?
The aforementioned large friendly grey poodle, who belongs to the priest and whose name is apparently "The Curate." He clattered around the church a bit during the first hymn and the psalm. I thought he was going to scamper around forever, but he soon settled down and went to sleep by the altar rail, where he looked rather heraldic and splendid.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Lenten Anglo-Catholic. Dignified without being too camp. Liturgically speaking, it seemed to be similar to the 1928 Prayer Book. Incense not overpowering. A rather nice purple Gothic chasuble for the priest, and dark blue cassocks and surplices for the choir. Lots of candles. Musically, some sombre Lenten hymns, with some good plainchant and the Lent Prose ("Hear us, O Lord, have mercy upon us"). Musical mass setting in English, four-part unaccompanied, arranged by Fr Jack Puterill, a previous Vicar of Thaxted, who was a pupil of Gustav Holst.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
No sermon, but prayers that struck a balance between ignoring the needs of the outside world and the News at Ten with incense.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The moment of consecration. A cliché I know, but I've been missing a style of worship that emphasises the uncanny and extraordinary nature of the sacraments.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The Welsh Prayer Book seems to operate on an order all of its own! I couldn't find the psalms, and had to look over the shoulder of the gentleman in front of me to locate Psalm 51. And I thought that an all-plainchant service would have been more effective than the mixture of chant, traditional hymns, and Imogen Holst that we got.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Well, the choir was all over me again, especially after the director of music had pointed me out! General "hellos" all around.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
No coffee or anything at all – I suppose we were all being Lenten.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – To find such joy in liturgy is wonderful amidst a sea of rural middle-of-the-road parishes. And the congregation are wonderfully welcoming – I shall definitely be back (if they'll have me!). Mind you, it would feel a little strange nipping over the border – they speak a different language there, don'tcha know.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes – although gladness did combine with Ash Wednesday feelings to make a heady and bittersweet cocktail.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
"The Curate" sleeping peacefully outside the sanctuary as the incense rose and the plainsong weaved its way into the darkness of the church.
 
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