Mystery Worshipper: Chris Churchcrawler
Church: St Arilda
Location: Oldbury on Severn, Gloucestershire, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 21 May 2006, 6:00pm
A local farmer told me that a long time ago there were two farmers who couldn't decide where to build a church. So they yoked two oxen to a plough and said that wherever the oxen stopped the church would be built. When the oxen got to Cowhill, naturally they couldn't make it up the hill. This is basically an old village church plonked on a volcano-like mound that may have been the site of a Roman fort. The church stands alone above the Severn valley and commands a superb view of the river, two Severn bridges, and the forest of Deane. It's a stone building with a rather large porch and short, squat 15th century tower. Arches dominate the interior, which is bright and inviting thanks to a large window in the east wall. The church was rebuilt after a fire in 1897, although the tower and some stonework elsewhere were retained. Recently a statue of St Arilda was installed on the porch.
This is one of only two churches dedicated to St Arilda, a Saxon woman beheaded for "not consenting to lie with the lord of the manor" – the other being the romantic isolated redundant church at Oldbury on Hill 15 miles away. The congregation retains many of its rural traditions, hence today's Rogation Sunday service. Feast of Title is also celebrated each year.
Oldbury on Severn is a small village and very much a farming community. Suprisingly (given its closeness to Bristol) it hasn't become very much of a commuter village.
The Revd David Primrose.
What was the name of the service?Rogation service, held partly in the church and partly outside.
How full was the building?
The old church had about 45 people. Although some old farmer characters were sitting in the back of the congregation, it was refreshing to see so many young children up front in the choir.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
After my car nearly got stuck in the mud outside, I walked into church to find people chatting about the weather and veterinary matters. I was greeted by a farmer who said, "We're 'aving the service outside today."
Was your pew comfortable?
My pew was lovely. Through the window I could see the surrounding farmland, the whole of the Severn estuary and the two bridges, and sailboats bobbing in the little inlet down below the hill. I could also see a storm heading up the Severn!
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Expectant! Everybody was excited about holding the service outside, and everybody was talking about the weather too! Will we get wet? Shall we come in?
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"The heavens are yours and the earth is too."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
A leaflet that explained the service.
What musical instruments were played?
Organ whilst inside the church.
Did anything distract you?
The service could have been lifted straight from the BBC Radio 4 soap opera The Archers. The storm dominated the proceedings. When we moved outside, the rain stopped but the wind blew! We stood all huddled together with views of the Severn and a tree that was bending backwards! The wind curiously did stop when we prayed "O Christ who calmed the storm..." but it soon resumed. Eventually the vicar said, "The fields may need the rain but we don't. Let's get back inside!"
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Very traditional but in a rural kind of way. This was a very special service held annually. The whole of it was based around blessing the seeds, praying for farmers and agriculture, the fishes, milk, etc.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
There was no sermon just a sketch performed by the choir girls and boys.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 – The children were well prepared and spoke well into the mike. One slightly mischievous little choirboy reminded me of myself 20 years ago!
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The sketch was about how parents aren't what they were!
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The view is just lovely. I often bicycle out here to enjoy a picnic lunch. And it was a moving experience to stand in the churchyard and hear prayers and readings that are a part of a long-standing tradition in an old place. It was also gratifying to see so many different generations of people in the church.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
I was going to say the weather. However, the force of the wind and rain seemed to add to the message of asking God to bless the farming area. It also drove home how dependent we still are on nature.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Two old farmers at the back of the church told me the yarn about the two oxen and then went on at some length about the church. But after a while they carried on with a conversation about vets and cows.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
I was very well fed at this service. There were cakes and home made scones.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
10 – There was something very homely about this church, and it seemed very welcoming to strangers.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
One could tell this was very much a local church and there was something very endearing about the place. The little choir of children reminded me of when I was a choirboy – and it is nice to see these rural traditions still being carried out.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The weather and the view!