Mystery Worshipper: Roundabout
Church: Romsey Abbey
Location: Romsey, Hampshire, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 29 January 2006, 10:00am
In AD 907 King Edward the Elder settled some nuns on this spot under the charge of his daughter. Ethelflaeda, the nunnery's second abbess, was a saintly woman to whom several miracles were attributed, and whose acts of sanctity reputedly included chanting psalms whilst standing naked in the River Test at night. The present building dates from about 1120 and is a fine medieval building with large windows and a well lit interior reminiscent of larger cathedrals across England. Classic Norman arches in the hard, cream coloured, freshwater limestone known as Binstead stone tower above the large nave. The rood is particularly famous, and the building attracts all kinds of visitors eager, I suppose, to see a quintessentially English church building. They are not disappointed. A recent survey by the Daily Telegraph named Romsey Abbey as among the 100 best loved places of worship in England.
At its height the nunnery housed about 100 women, but the Black Death reduced their number to 19. The Abbey entered a period of shared use as the local parish church and was thus spared demolition during Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries. By the time of the Puritans the nunnery had been suppressed and the building's fabric had undergone major changes. Today the Abbey remains the largest parish church in Hampshire and is affiliated with the Greater Churches group. The parish sponsors numerous societies and its congregation numbers many of the local great and good. Lord Mountbatten (who was killed by an IRA bomb in 1979) is buried inside the church.
The Abbey Church of St Mary and St Ethelflaeda is the heart of the small market town of Romsey, a very middle class town to the southwest of Winchester. Romsey enjoyed a prosperous wool trade in earlier times, followed by a thriving brewing and papermaking industry. During the 19th and early 20th centuries Romsey was famous for the manufacture of collapsible boats, including lifeboats used on the Titanic, among other vessels.
The Revd Canon Neil Crawford-Jones, vicar (identified in the service sheet only as "the Vicar") was celebrant and preacher. The Revd Tim Harling, assistant vicar, served as deacon, and Squadron Leader Joseph Davies was the subdeacon.
What was the name of the service?Sung Eucharist for Candlemas.
How full was the building?
Chairs were provided in the nave and they were mostly full. It wasn't possible to find an entirely empty row. I'd guess at a congregation of 300.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
A sidesperson passed me a service book, leafelt and candle. Someone who didn't see me in the queue accidentally bumped into me and apologised, but this was the only direct word said to me.
Was your pew comfortable?
It was a modern wooden chair, with a kneeler supplied if I wanted it. It was moderately comfortable for the length of the service, but most definitely not designed for slouching.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
I arrived about five minutes before service time, and the vicar was explaining the procedure for the service. People were listening, but there was still the usual background noise of the congregation settling in.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Open me the gates of righteousness" – the first line of the liturgy for the day. As it was Candlemas, everyone had been given a candle on entry to the church and the service started at the rear of the nave, by the font.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
New English Hymnal, a relatively smart in-house eucharistic service pamphlet, and a sheet containing the special liturgy for Candlemas.
What musical instruments were played?
Organ, played superbly well. Judging by the choir (a large men and boys ensemble), attracting good quality organists is not a problem.
Did anything distract you?
Two acolytes went up each side of the aisle to light the people's candles. The acolyte on the opposite side from me lit the first candle in every three or four rows of chairs, whilst our acolyte was following a slower technique. Impatient, I stepped across the aisle to get a light from the other side and help hurry my side along (for we were approaching the end of the Nunc dimittis), and in doing so seemed to have crossed the invisible line between what is done and what is Simply Not Done! Aside from that, having to juggle the candle, service sheet and hymn book was a distraction, but at least we blew the candles out fairly early.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Eastward facing high altar eucharist in the Common Worship tradition, with bells but no smells – just on the higher side of middle-of-the-road Church of England. This, and the English Hymnal, a sung anthem, Nunc dimittis and choir-only mass setting, made this service as traditional as it gets, and it was done well. Some might describe it as stiff-upper lip, but personally I appreciated the fact that a lesser festival was being celebrated as parish eucharist.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
I was not wearing a watch, and fumbled to locate my cell phone to use as a timer, but for once couldn't find the blessed instrument amongst my things. But I would estimate 15 minutes, judging from the discomfort of the seat and the coldness of my hands.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
6 – I thought Canon Crawford-Jones failed to bring out the excitement and expectation in the gospel passage (the presentation of Christ at the temple, and the reactions of Simeon and Anna). I admit to getting a little lost halfway through.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
He talked about putting our vocation into practice, as Simeon and Anna had done, and not letting church as fantasy put us off our true relationship with God. The post-communion prayer, where we ask God to accept our souls and bodies as a living sacrifice, is more than just words – it is something we need to work on.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Listening to the choir sing the Nunc dimittis at the beginning of the service was pretty close to heaven, and the sight of a full church on a Sunday morning brought a smile to my heart.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Maybe it was the faux pas of the candle lighting incident, perhaps it was the fact that I was at least ten years younger than 98 percent of the congregation, but no one said a word to me after the service.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Well, I remained put in my aisle seat, fairly confident that out of the four people sitting in my row, someone would talk to me. One couple passed in front of my knees to get out without so much as a hello, and the other couple were tracked down by someone else in the congregation for a chat. Far from burying my head in prayer, I looked up and smiled as people walked up the aisle past me, but I received not so much as a glance from anyone. As most people had gone past me after a couple of minutes, I went to look at the magnificent crib scene located in a side aisle through which people had to go to exit. I tried to look the part of visitor, studying all the information plaques on the wall – but again, no one approached me. Finally, I tried to strike up a conversation with a sidesperson, dismantling my candle to put it away in the boxes they were using to store the candles and card – but I didn't get so much as a good-bye. After that, trying to locate the coffee hour was definitely not what I was in mood for.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Alas, I wouldn't know. Coffee had been announced as taking place in a "church room" without a clue as to where one could find it. I wish that churches wouldn't assume that everyone knows the layout.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
4 – Today's experience was the exact opposite of one I had had at Romsey a few months ago. At that time I thought Romsey could be my new spiritual home, especially as I'm considering moving to the town. But I have my doubts after today. I might, however, try it once again before I write it off as a lost cause.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
I was glad to be part of the Anglican Church celebrating a festival – but I can't say it made me feel glad to be a Christian.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The aisle-crossing candle incident.