Bath Abbey (Exterior)

Bath Abbey, Bath, England


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Bath Abbey
Location: Bath, England
Date of visit: Thursday, 14 June 2012, 5:30pm

The building

The Abbey Church of St Peter and St Paul is a magnificent Perpendicular Gothic affront to the Georgian architecture of Bath! Standing on the site of a vastly larger Norman abbey, the present church dates from the early 16th century and has had many restorations since then. The lovely fan vaulting is mostly Victorian. Also the tower is a rectangular shape to allow for the narrow transepts. However, the crowning glory of the building are the huge clerestory windows and the flying buttresses.

The church

It is a major tourist attraction as well as a parish church that draws in large gathered congregations. They have a long tradition of producing exceptional music, encompassing the world-renown Abbey Choir; organ recitals; and training, concerts and performance workshops for local schoolchildren. Holy communion is celebrated, and morning and evening prayer read, throughout the week. On Sundays, in addition to holy communion and an informal service, choral matins and evensong are sung.

The neighborhood

Bath, in southwestern England not far from Bristol, was established in AD43 as a Roman spa, but the curative properties of its warm mineral springs may have been known before then. It became increasingly popular as a spa town during the Georgian era (1714-1830) and much of the city's architecture dates from then. Today Bath has it all: Roman baths, Georgian architecture, Victorian shopping mall, several public schools and a brand new shopping area.

The cast

No names or information given.

What was the name of the service?

Choral Evensong.

How full was the building?

The abbey church was full of visitors at 4.45 when the choristers started rehearsing. I had to nip out to Marks & Sparks (as we call Marks & Spencer, our local luxury food and clothing shoppe) to visit the loo. However, by the time I arrived back, the crowd had been reduced to only 50 or so sitting toward the front.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

The place was swimming with tourists, and even some who had cunningly disguised themselves as worshipers were snapping their cameras at everything in sight. It was like being at a press conference! The sidespeople were friendly.

Was your pew comfortable?

Quite comfortable for a Victorian Gothic pew!

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Quite busy. The tourists were snapping away; some were reverently lighting candles. The organist was playing quietly, in the middle of which an old lady's mobile kicked off very loudly. Did she switch it off and put it away? No, she didn't. She answered it!! A lady next to her gave her an extremely evil look, but this didn't deter her. The organist continued though regardless! Looking around me, I saw that many of the congregation looked like models for M&S whilst I sat in my scruffy rugby top and jeans!

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Welcome to this service of Choral Evensong!"

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The Book of Common Prayer and Hymns Ancient and Very Ancient (sorry, Modern).

What musical instruments were played?

The abbey's two organs: a four-stop continuo organ, an opus of Kenneth Tickell & Company Ltd of Northampton, installed in 1999; and the great organ, a 1997 reconstruction by Klais Orgelbau of Bonn, Germany, of the abbey's 1895 Norman and Beard instrument. The continuo organ was used to accompany the choir, and for the hymns the organist progressed on to the large four manual abbey organ, which was a real treat. However, I loved the continuo and was dying to ask him to let me play it!

Did anything distract you?

Yes – how many people were carrying Marks & Spencer bags!

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

This was cathedral style worship in traditional low church Prayer Book style. Not a whiff of incense! The service seemed to be themed around Orlando Gibbons – very appropriate given when the church was built. The readings were from the Book of Job – not exactly the most cheerful book of the Bible.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

No sermon.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The music, without a doubt. Orlando Gibbons has a timeless essence about him that never seems to date. The choir boys did very well. They sang in unison, but I provided the bass!

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

Some of the tourists whose cameras were peeping out of bags and pockets like elephant trunks. Also I'm not Tory or public school – and this service just had something of both about it. Also, curious about the allegiance to Marks & Spencer, which symbolises the very essence of middle classness. I'm a working class lad who had the good fortune to be brought up in a choral tradition.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

Not a lot. Cathedral congregations aren't about mixing and very much about self. Maybe that is why it appeals to the Marks & Sparks brigade and why cathedral congregations appear to be growing.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

None offered.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

9 – For the music. And the style of worship is one that I very much like. It would be nice to extend it to others outside the M&S bracket. Also, a sign pointing the way to the loo would be useful.

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

Yes it did, especially the music, in its haunting and somewhat eerie beauty.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

Orlando Gibbons. I did wonder whether Orlando would have popped over to M&S for a new top.

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