Wells Cathedral (Exterior)

Wells Cathedral, Wells, Somerset, England


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Wells Cathedral
Location: Wells, Somerset, England
Date of visit: Saturday, 31 August 2013, 5:15pm

The building

Theres been a church on this site since 705. The current building, the Cathedral Church of St Andrew in Wells, dates from the late 12th century and is regarded as Europe's first Gothic cathedral. The bishop of the time wanted to be free of monastic interference, so he acquired papal approval to move his cathedral from Bath Abbey to Wells. The two most notable features of this building are the scissor shaped chancel arch and the west front with its galleries of saints. Behind this gallery is a narrow passage for singers, complete with holes for trumpets, used in the Palm Sunday procession in the Middle Ages.

The church

The people of the city had two parish churches to choose from and the cathedral was originally for the chapter's liturgy only. Nowadays, it has its own congregation drawn from the city and much further afield.

The neighborhood

Wells is the smallest English city and most of its shops are geared for the large tourist industry, which thrives due to the city's proximity to Bath, Stonehenge and Glastonbury as well as because of its own historic sites. The city is named after the three wells, one in the market place and two within the grounds of the bishop's palace and cathedral, that were known since ancient times.

The cast

A lay reader officiated (I could not find out her name because the August service list had already been replaced, a day early, by the September one). The Very Revd John Clarke, dean of Wells, gave the blessing. The office was sung by the choir of Bowden Parish Church, Cheshire.

What was the name of the service?

Choral Evensong.

How full was the building?

The quire was about two-thirds full. I counted 92 people.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Quite the reverse. The quire was roped off with a notice requesting anyone wishing to attend the service to "ask the verger." With five minutes to go and no sign of a verger, my friend unhooked the rope. What is it with cathedrals and ropes? Further along, a man asked me if I was with the choir, to which I said no. Then he showed me a seat.

Was your pew comfortable?

Nice padded stall with large kneeler.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Quiet. The organist played some twiddly bits whilst awaiting the arrival of the choir.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"O Lord, open thou our lips."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Book of Common Prayer (for the psalms), a laminated card (with the office) and the New English Hymnal.

What musical instruments were played?

Two organs: the chamber organ, a small portable chest organ by the Scottish firm of Lammermuir, for the canticles.

Did anything distract you?

A couple of people sat on their own in an otherwise empty bay of pews. They disappeared sometime during the Nunc dimittis and I was left wondering whether they had a coach to catch or if they'd felt out of place, somehow.

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

Formal, unobtrusive, objective cathedral worship at its best.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

There was none but see below about "the other place."

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The music. The psalms were chanted very well and it is often said that if a choir takes special care with the psalms, the rest of the music will take care of itself. The anthem, "The Heavens Are Telling" from Haydn's Creation avoided the two usual traps of becoming a bass shout (enjoyable though that is for those of us who sing bass) and falling apart toward the end.

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

The intercessory prayers after the anthem. One might expect to pray for trouble spots in the world, for parishes within the diocese, and so on. Instead, we were given mini sermons urging us to pray about various things on the lines of "Our first reading reminded us that...", "Our psalms/anthem reminded us that... so we pray for..." On the one hand, I admire the officiant for having gone to such lengths to prepare. On the other hand, it got very boring and nobody seemed to be joining in with the Amens, suggesting that they felt like I did.

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

I had to leave quickly, as I was with friends parked with a meter ticking on, but I made a point of seeking out the officiant to see if she was attached to the visiting choir of if she was on the cathedral staff. I was delighted to learn that it was the latter because it is rare for cathedrals to use readers when they have so many clergy.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There was none, but we had a nice pint in an "Olde Worldey" village pub a few miles away.

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

10 – It offers the usual round of cathedral services (including choral mattins, which is rare these days) with liberal catholic ceremonial.

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

Yes - being part of a daily office whose current form goes back 400 years in a building where the offices have been said or sung daily for over 800 years.

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

The couple who disappeared.

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