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1605: St Mary's Priory, Cas Gwent (Chepstow), Wales
St Mary's Priory, Cas Gwent, Wales
Photo: Roy Parkhouse
Mystery Worshipper: Chris Churchcrawler.
The church: St Mary's Priory, Cas Gwent (Chepstow), Wales.
Denomination: The Church in Wales.
The building: The ancient priory church of St Mary is sited in the back streets of a Welsh border town. The church is an odd looking building, as it is a Norman fragment of a far larger priory. A tower was added in the early 18th century, and a north transept in the 1830s. The magnificent Victorian chancel is by the Welsh Gothic revivalists John Pollard Seddon and his partner John Coates Carter. The nave is very dark and is sited between the arcades of the old Norman abbey. A warden suggested I have a look around before the service. I did so, and noticed a monument to a lady named Margaret Clayton that depicts her two husbands kneeling and their children all around. A huge skeleton is painted onto the wall next to the monument.
The church: The church itself is typically no frills Catholic in a Church of Wales kind of way. Sadly the congregation are mostly elderly and the church faces an uncertain future. I couldn't help wondering if I came back in 20 years whether the building would be redundant and a museum or not. Unlike the Welsh language churches Annybynywr and Presbyteriadd, St Mary's makes no reference to Welsh culture at all. No Pantycelyn hymns here! It appears to reflect an English rite and heritage albeit very effectively.
The neighbourhood: St Mary's is the main church of this small town which is sited on the sleepy River Wye and near the River Severn. It is a hillside parish with a large castle. Nearby is the massive linear earthwork attributed to Offa, king of Mercia from 757 to 796, called Offa's Dyke. There are almshouses and a town gate, and there is a distinct Welsh feel to the place. In fact, one of the pubs had bilingual signs outside. A few miles away is Ysgol Ffyn (Welsh Language School) in an area where Welsh hasn't been spoken for a very long time.
The cast: The service was taken by a retired priest, the Revd David Richards, as the vicar was away at the other church in the parish.
The date & time: Sea Sunday, 13 July 2008, 10.00am. Sea Sunday is a day set aside annually for the remembrance of mariners, fishermen and port workers, together with their families and dependents.

What was the name of the service?
Sunday Worship.

How full was the building?
There were about 45 elderly people spread across the church. I was the youngest at 37 by a long shot. A worrying state of affairs for a reasonable sized town – it seems unthinkable that a town church could be running on such low numbers. However, it seems typical of many Welsh town churches that tend to give the impression they are surviving but are actually finding it hard to keep their heads above water. Presbyteriadd Cymru and Annybynwyr (Independent) still seem to keep their numbers in the towns although there are none in Chepstow.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes. I was very pleasantly welcomed by a lady at the church door. She seemed sympathetic to the fact that I had only been awake for 45 minutes and had just travelled across the bridge in time for the service. Several people nodded but made no conversation as such – as is the Anglican tradition!

Was your pew comfortable?
A small wooden chair – not easy to sprawl out!

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
It was very quiet. Some people lit candles near the front. There was no organ music until a few minutes before the service, at which time the bell also tolled. It felt like being a bit of a ghost in time haunting the church.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning and welcome to St Mary's church. Let's begin with the introit hymn." Then the choir and clergy processed to the front of the church.

What books did the congregation use during the service?
Hymns Old and New and a printed order of service. There was also a newsletter in which the hymn numbers were given.

What musical instruments were played?
The organ for most of the service. The organist played well and chose registrations that were just right. She played some pieces by the 18th century English composer and organist John Stanley, which added to the timeless atmosphere of the place and the illusion of being a ghost of time haunting the church.

Did anything distract you?
It was very dark in the nave – the history of the place was very tangible. As I said earlier, I felt like a ghost of modern times haunting a church of antiquity. The church was such a mish-mash of architecture – the simplicity of the Norman nave contrasted with the high Victorian chancel, but the two made for dreadful acoustics!

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The style of the service was that timeless, almost Victorian, style so characteristic of the Church in Wales: no frills middle-of-the-road. But very nice for that and in keeping with the atmosphere of the church. Whether it's a style the church can afford to maintain is open to question.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
20 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
5 – It was a lecture type sermon. The visiting priest sounded learned from what I could hear, but the acoustics muffled most of what he said. I began to grow restless after awhile.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
He spoke on the parable of the sower of good seed and mentioned the British Coal Board, but that's really all I could make out. I was reminded for some reason of land near where I once lived. Surely a case for a nave pulpit.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The music so well suited this ancient edifice. Particularly the singing of a responsive psalm with a haunting tune. The responses were sung by one lone tenor from the far off choir stalls. And then the Stanley organ pieces.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The first thing that annoyed me was the problem with the acoustics. There was a big distance between the action and the people. They could benefit from moving the altar and pulpit forward. The choir would do better to move to the crossing too. Then the second thing that slightly annoyed me was the unspoken reaction of people when, as I was introduced around after the service, they realised I was a member of the United Reformed Church, not Church of Wales. Some of them seemed to wince at the mention of the term. This, even though the oldest Congregational church in Wales is less than five miles away and the fact that Annybynwyr, along with Presbyteriadd Cymru, are really the heart and soul of Welsh religion. And they forget that those great Welsh hymns by Pantycelyn originated from the chapel, not the church. Finally, I know Chepstow is not Welsh speaking, but it would have been nice to have a nod to the language with a dismissal or prayer in Welsh. With a new Welsh school at Sudbrook, shouldn't Chepstow be doing its bit for the language?!

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I was greeted by a very kindly lady who introduced me to the organist and several other people. After everyone else had left, I lingered a bit to sit down at the organ and play some pieces by Bach and the contemporary Welsh composer William Mathias, and a couple of Welsh hymns. As I was leaving, a man came up and asked if I enjoyed playing the organ. I said I did. "Not sure what our recital people would think of it," he replied. Not sure of what he meant by that – was he frightened because I played with a bit of life?

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
None offered.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 – I would like this style of service with the traditional hymns and rite to remain. However, I think when I come back in 20 years there will either be a different churchmanship or a closed door. It would be nice to think that I'd find a little bit of Welsh spoken and that something of the Welsh culture had survived. However, the Church in Wales reflects an English heritage and rite that makes little reference to the culture around it. Had St Mary's been in England it would have been good.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, but one cut off from Welsh culture.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The wonderfully sung psalm!
 
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