Mystery Worshipper: J Whitgift
Church: The Priory Church of Reconciliation
Location: Taizé, France
Date of visit: Thursday, 26 July 2007, 5:00pm
The priory church was built in 1962 by a group of German architects whose mission was to erect symbols of reconciliation in places of wartime suffering. From the outside, the church looks like a 1960s aircraft hanger with onion dome attachments. The building has been added to over a number of years and so there are distinct architectural styles. The floor is built on a slight slope, allowing those at the back a view of the sanctuary at the front. The decor is bright and colourful, if slightly odd. The walls are adorned with icons and modern stained glass windows. The brothers sit in a central aisle, cordoned off with plastic topiary hedging.
The abbey is an ecumenical community founded in 1940 by the Swiss-born Roger Schutz, better known as Brother Roger. During World War II the community sheltered refugees, especially Jews, fleeing Nazi-occupied France. Since its foundation, the abbey's focus has been to engender a passion for the Church and to encourage those who visit Taizé to undertake a "pilgrimage of trust on earth." Today the Taizé community is made up of over 100 brothers from more than 25 nations, not only Roman Catholic but also from various Protestant backgrounds. In 2005 Brother Roger was stabbed to death in front of about 2500 worshipers by a woman who had apparently been stalking him for some time.
The sleepy rural hamlet of Taizé is situated in the Macconaise, Burgundy, in southeastern France, close to the Swiss border. It is about 20 miles away from the ancient abbey town of Cluny. The village is now mainly inhabited by those attached to the Taizé community. In the immediate vicinity of the church are various campsites/dormitory blocks for those staying at Taizé. Otherwise the area is mainly quiet and rural.
Brother Alois, prior of the Taizé community, and various brothers who served as cantors throughout the service.
What was the name of the service?Evening Prayer.
How full was the building?
Packed – about 5,500 people were staying at Taizé the week I was there, most of whom attended the service, plus about 70 or so of the resident brothers at Taizé.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Not to the service itself. We were met with signs reminding us to keep silence before the service started. However, at the beginning of the week we had been met by one of the brothers and a host of welcomers who made our party feel very welcome.
Was your pew comfortable?
No! Of particular note is that there are no pews or seats in the church. Rather, seating is cross-legged on the floor or on Taizé prayer stools, leading to that well known and very painful affliction "Taizé bum."
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quiet and reverent. However, there was the general murmur of 5,500 people arriving for the service and the flash from people's cameras.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Aleiluia, Aleiluia, rendez grace au seigneur ... il est bon."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Songs from Taizé, sheet of chants for evening prayer. The Taizé style of simple chant melodies repeated mantra-like over variations on the theme is known throughout the world.
What musical instruments were played?
Digital keyboard – I believe it was a Clavinova – to emulate the sound of a pipe organ.
Did anything distract you?
Trying to sit cross-legged on the floor for over an hour left me in some considerable discomfort! I constantly had to shift my legs to avoid cramp and could barely move by the end of the service. However, this is all part of the Taizé experience.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
There's no one word which can describe the worship of the Taizé community. It is both reverential and peaceful with chants in various languages and from various Christian traditions, being sung by the congregation and repeated, repeated, over and again. There are also prayers (with responses) by the brothers, sung psalms, and readings most often in French, English and German.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
10 – The sermon/address by Brother Alois came at the end of evening worship. He spoke in French and the address was translated into 10 or so key languages.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
How diverse the people visiting Taizé are and how this diversity has helped to break down barriers between people during the week. The importance of bringing people together to facilitate the breaking down of barriers, both religious and cultural. The importance of reconciliation in the Bible, how reconciliation comes from God, through Jesus. How reconciliation leads us to share Jesus with others and how reconciliation is often led by the poorest in our society. However, in order for reconciliation to work we need to care for each other and to share the gifts we have.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Sharing fellowship, worship and prayer with over 5000 people from 60 to 70 different countries.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The experience of Taizé bum/cramped legs from sitting on the floor for too long.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
The icon of the Holy Cross was brought into the centre of the church for people to meditate on. A majority of people stayed to say their own prayers/devotions. Others, like me, left quietly to go to the community bar for a drink.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
The community bar served no coffee, but rather hot chocolate and low alcohol beer and cider to wash down some crisps. It was OK.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 – Whilst I really enjoyed the life of Taizé, their emphasis is on people going back in to their home parishes renewed and enlivened by their experience. It therefore would not be appropriate to try to see the priory at Taizé as a place to make one's regular church. Also, as Taizé is located in southeastern France, it would be fairly difficult to attend on a regular basis, as I am based in London.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The experience of worshipping with over 5,000 people in one place and of getting to know the members of the party I was leading better.