St Mary's Priory, Abergavenny, Wales

St Mary's Priory, Abergavenny, Wales


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Mary's Priory
Location: Abergavenny, Wales
Date of visit: Sunday, 14 June 2009, 6:00pm

The building

A stately church of some size, in pristine condition. The present building dates from the 14th century, with very little of an earlier structure surviving. Its original layout was cruciform, with Herefordshire windows (three lancets under one arch) and a central tower of ten bells. Extensive renovations in the early 19th century rendered the original plan almost unrecognisable. In 1882 a thorough restoration was begun, following the original lines as far as possible. But much remains to be done. St Mary's treasures include some of the finest examples of medieval tombs, effigies and sculptures to be found anywhere. One of the effigies bears the inscription: "We all to dust will go. Who knows what we will be?" – a cheerful thought! Especially notable is the Jesse, a large wooden carving once part of an even larger carving depicting the lineage of Jesus Christ.

The church

The Benedictine priory at Abergavenny was established at the end of the 11th century. After Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, the priory church became the parish church for this small South Wales town. The church seems to have a variety of newly built venues for social activities, from singing to cheese tasting. Holy eucharist is celebrated each weekday, with three celebrations plus evensong on Sundays.

The neighborhood

Abergavenny, called the gateway to South Wales, is situated just south of the Black Mountains, part of the Brecon Beacons National Park. The town is ringed by a series of mountains and hills, the most notable of which is called Sugar Loaf. Abergavenny hosts a thriving business community.

The cast

The Revd Canon Jeremy H. Winston, vicar; the Revd Dr John Plessis, curate.

What was the name of the service?

Evensong and Sermon.

How full was the building?

About 40 spread across a huge church. Not bad for a small town. All appeared to be of upper middle class, although of course one can't always tell. Certainly the congregation didn't seem to reflect the bikers and young people outside the building.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

A friendly church warden greeted me and we had a chat about the organ. Also, the vicar and curate were very warm. However, everybody else kept to themselves in time-honoured Anglican fashion – no eye contact or anything! One or two people wished me a good evening, but nothing else.

Was your pew comfortable?

It did the job!

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Reverential. I stupidly took a seat in the front, forgetting that Anglican custom would expect me to sit toward the back along with everyone else. Very embarrassing!

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Let's begin with hymn 112."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Hymns for Today's Church and Book of Common Prayer for the Church in Wales.

What musical instruments were played?

The pipe organ has been gone for over 10 years. The current organ is an electronic thing and not the best type by the looks of it, although it sounded great. The young organist appeared very competent. I'm quite astounded that a small town can muster up such good quality music.

Did anything distract you?

How well dressed everybody was – which was to become a theme of the sermon. It seemed that the upper classes of this part of Wales were here in force. I wondered whether this was a Church in Wales peculiarity or whether the nonconformist churches (of which there is a very long history here) had similar people in attendance.

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

Modern Catholic, but not extreme! No incense. Modern language. There was some mention of the Walsingham pilgrimage and statues of Mary.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

20 minutes.

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

8 – The vicar delivered an intelligent and well thought out sermon – rather like some of the academic theological lectures I attended at Lampeter. He was quietly controversial and certainly thought provoking. I liked his honesty.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

He began by saying that there was a dress code for this church – people are not expected to come to church in shorts. (I had been out all afternoon and was in dark jeans and a red t-shirt; everybody else was dressed as if they had stepped out of Savile Row.) Those churches who do not keep up certain traditions and standards are putting God down to man's level. God is not cute and cuddly in the way that some churches imply. As CS Lewis said: God is not tame; there are some aspects of God that are scary. We must return to the Victorian respect for God rather than persist in trying to humanise God.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The vicar's thoughtful sermon, which echoed around this ancient place. The music and style of service were good, although I would have preferred the old 1662 language.

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

The vicar's mention of dress code. It made me feel very self-conscious. If this were my first time ever inside a church, I would have run a mile and never come back. However, I do take his point. But talking about a dress code ignores the real problem: all those less well dressed people outside (hundreds of bikers) and young people are not in church – or they just bike on down to the Baptist church dressed as they are.

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

I spoke again with the sidesman and the vicar, who were very welcoming and cheerful. I would have liked to have spent more time with the vicar discussing his sermon. But everybody else avoided eye contact – I must have stood out a mile in my jeans and t-shirt.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Nothing offered. Straight from the pew to the street.

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

7 – I would find it difficult adhering to the dress code. I share the sentiment expressed by John Frost, Welsh hero and leader of the British Chartist movement: "I do not measure the worth of a man by the cut of his cloth or the money in his purse."

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

Yes, but a somewhat elitist one. My background is United Reformed Church, which welcomes anybody wearing anything not incompatible with the gospel. I would want to see some of those bikers and young people in church.

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

The vicar's warm welcome, but also his comments about dress code!

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