Priory Church of the Holy Trinity, Christchurch, Dorset, England

Christchurch Priory, Christchurch, Dorset, England


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Mystery Worshipper: Ecclesiastical Flip-flop
Church: Christchurch Priory
Location: Christchurch, Dorset, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 25 September 2005, 6:30pm

The building

The Domesday Book records that during the reign of King Edward the Confessor (1042-1066) there was a priory of 24 secular canons on this site, later reconstituted as a priory of canons regular of the order of St Augustine of Hippo. In 1094 a Norman church was begun where the old priory had stood. Construction continued throughout the next few hundred years, and by 1350 the nave roof had been lifted to its present height over the clerestory. John Draper, the last Augustinian prior, managed to procure the building from King Henry VIII at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries as the parish church in perpetuity for the townsfolk of Christchurch; thus, the building (unlike many other monastic buildings) was spared from destruction. It is a magnificent building. In recent years the exterior masonry has been cleaned and now looks very resplendent. The south nave aisle windows are in the Decorated Gothic style, as is the quire screen, although it is probable that this screen was brought in from elsewhere at a later date. The east end of the building, separated from the nave and sanctuary area by a stone screen, consists of the quire with its misericords. Up above the medieval high altar, just below the ceiling, is a small mural of the Ascension painted in 1967 by 20th century painter/sculptor Hans Freibusch. A nave altar is used for the principal Sunday services. At the extreme east end of the building is the Lady chapel.

The church

The Priory Church of the Holy Trinity, Christchurch, offers cathedral-style Sunday services that attract people from far and near. The choir maintains a very high standard and sings the eucharist (Common Worship, traditional) as well as matins and evensong (Book of Common Prayer) every Sunday. Services are offered daily throughout the week. It is a forward-in-faith church, opting out of women priests and the liberal tendencies of present day Anglicanism.

The neighborhood

Christchurch is situated in the part of Dorset that used to be in Hampshire, and is between the New Forest and Bournemouth, in the diocese of Winchester. It attracts many holiday-makers each year and is a favourite place for retired people to come and live. It is a historic town and very scenic. The church lies at the end of the High Street in close proximity to the harbour. It overlooks Mudeford Sandbank and its many holiday chalets, and the Isle of Wight beyond. The harbour lies at the estuary of the Rivers Stour and Avon and is a favourite place for boating and fishing. The scenery is a sight to behold.

The cast

The vicar of Christchurch, the Revd Canon Hugh Williams, vested in green cope and matching stole, was assisted by the Revd Canon Andrew Hawthorne and by one other priest whose name was not given. There was a team of three servers (two acolytes and a crucifer who did double duty as the thurifer) vested in albs and green apparelled amices. A churchwarden, who I presume was Mike Beams, also took part in the service, but more about that later.

What was the name of the service?

Solemn Choral Evensong and Benediction.

How full was the building?

Hard to tell – people were scattered all over the nave. As we shall see later, the service concluded in the Lady chapel, which is spacious enough to be a small church in and of itself. At that point, the chapel was completely full. I suppose there were 50 or more people in the congregation.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

I had arrived earlier that afternoon, hours before service time, to reacquaint myself with the priory, and a baptism was then in progress. A friendly guide in a blue gown greeted me and handed me the standard guide leaflet. A little later a voice said hello, and it was Rosemary the tower captain. If it wasn't for the fact the ringers would be ringing a quarter peal, I would have gone up the tower to take part in the pre-service ringing, as on previous visits. When service time approached I made my entry and received a friendly hello from a sidesman who handed me the books I would need.

Was your pew comfortable?

There were interlocking padded chairs – yes, very comfortable.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

I stood outside listening to the quarter peal. On this occasion it was being rung for a couple celebrating their golden wedding anniversary, and consisted of 1,260 changes of plain bob major (45 minutes of non-stop ringing on eight bells, and no change can be repeated), faultlessly executed. As I stepped inside, the organ was playing and the request for silence before the service was being duly observed.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Good evening and welcome to the Priory for evensong on this, the 18th Sunday after Trinity. We begin with hymn number 265 ('Lord of beauty, thine the splendour')."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The Book of Common Prayer; New English Hymnal; sheets of paper giving the order of benediction and notices. In the pew was The Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ. The service was sung only by the gentlemen of the choir, although the director appeared to be a woman.

Did anything distract you?

The censing during the Magnificat and at benediction always has a tendency to distract me, but I found nothing to complain of in the vicar's technique. But whilst the sanctuary party stood in front of the altar for the last part of the office up to the third collect, one of the acolytes seemed a little unsure of what to do and which way to face as he held his candle. The vicar had to whisper instructions to him here and there. (All the dear boy need have done was to mimic his partner.) At benediction, the Divine Praises omitted references to Mary's immaculate conception and assumption, and the vicar forgot to remove the consecrated host from the monstrance and return it to the tabernacle before processing out afterwards.

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

It was a traditional service of Prayer Book choral evensong. The canticles were sung to Sumsion in G. The anthem was "In God's word will I rejoice", by Purcell. The congregation processed out behind the choir and sanctuary party to the hymn "Abide with me" for benediction in the Lady chapel. Immediately before benediction, the vicar blessed the new monstrance, lunette, tabernacle and pair of outdoor acolytes' candles, given in memory of a sacristan and assistant verger who had died recently.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

Not a proper sermon, but two talks lasting 7 minutes and 11 minutes respectively.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

5 – 10 for speaking about stewardship, but only 1 for doing so at the wrong time and place, making an average of 5.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Christian stewardship and a reappraisal of strategy and a sense of direction in the local church community. A churchwarden gave the first talk, and the vicar gave the second talk on behalf of Richard Hawthorn, the other churchwarden, in his absence. The churchwarden reviewed parish progress, covering topics such as other churches in Christchurch, shortage of clergy resulting in increased involvement of the laity, priory services, young people, plans to make the priory and visitors' centre more user-friendly, conservation of the priory building, music and the choir. Even with 76,000 visitors to the priory last year, sufficient income was not brought in. The vicar then took over with "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." There was a £17,000 deficit, and in order to wipe that out, would each worshipper consider contributing £2 more per week.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The censing of the altar during the Magnificat and benediction, which always speaks of heaven.

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

The moment the churchwarden mounted the pulpit I was filled with dismay. I had visions of the service running longer than I could stay (as I had a train to catch), resulting in my having to miss benediction (which I don't get that much of a chance to attend). As it turned out, there was plenty of time. But my point is that stewardship – important as it is – should be dealt with outside the service, either straight afterwards or at another time, so as not to interrupt the flow and devotional aspect of the service.

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

After joining the queue to shake hands with the clergy, I really had to dash for my train, and so I couldn't linger to see what else would happen.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There wasn't any.

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

9 – Christchurch Priory has been a favourite of mine since childhood. If I lived in Christchurch, I would go there pretty well every week, with the possibility of dividing my loyalties with another church if I wanted to go further up the Anglo-catholic spectrum.

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


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

Benediction in the Lady chapel and the talks on stewardship. That's two things – oh well!

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