Bath Abbey

Bath Abbey, Bath, England


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Mystery Worshipper: Newman's Own
Church: Bath Abbey
Location: Bath, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 19 August 2012, 12:15pm

The building

One cannot do justice in a few sentences to the splendour and beauty of the historic Abbey Church of St Peter and St Paul. The architecture is magnificent, perhaps the ultimate expression of Perpendidular Gothic. The combination of richness and exquisite taste is one I find very enriching to worship.

The church

Bath Abbey has a rich and varied history dating to the Middle Ages. There was a church on the site as far back as 757. The present abbey was founded in 1499 but not completed until 1611. It is a very popular tourist attraction. The church offers concerts, exhibitions, care for the homeless, and Christian education.

The neighborhood

As one who dislikes rural areas but loves "peace in places that remain urban," I wonder if heaven may be something like this area. Bath Abbey is located near Roman baths, a stunning waterfall and park, diverse and charming business areas, and such historic eating spots as Sally Lynn's. There is enough history, culture, and fun in the immediate area for any taste.

The cast

The Revd Claire Robson, vicar pastor.

What was the name of the service?

Parish Communion.

How full was the building?

The communion was held in the quire, and there were about 30 people present. This small, quiet service directly followed choral matins, which I did not attend (though those exiting made it clear the church must have been packed). I'm sure I'll be excused, since this was a "holiday day out pilgrimage," for substituting a special breakfast.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Bearing in mind that this was based on a misunderstanding, I did find the "greeting" amusing. I had not realised that the exit for those leaving after matins was not identical with the entrance, and I was seeking to enter the building just as many visitors were crowded in front of the exit door, making the most of their cameras and iPhones. My "greeting," since I was mistaken for a tourist, was: "Could you return at about 1.00?"

Was your pew comfortable?

Yes, very comfortable.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

It was rather hectic – a combination of bustle from those leaving matins and the clergy "keeping out" those who wished to tour and take photographs. Directly outside the open exit doors there were many people in the square and tourists bustling for a peek and a photo.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open..."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

There was a special booklet, nearly identical to the 1662 Book of Common Prayer communion. It maintained the BCP structure and prayers, though there was some updated language (for example: "and also with you" rather than "and with thy spirit").

What musical instruments were played?

There was no music at this service. Bath Abbey has an outstanding musical programme. Be that as it may, it occurred to me that a small, simple service can capture an element of worship that others may find pleasing and valuable even if it is not the norm.

Did anything distract you?

The altar had an odd, very modern and stylised frontal, which I believe represented a tree in bloom. It clashed with the rich, classic Gothic elegance of the building.

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

The style was lovely – peaceful, elegant and recollected. Whether this was intended or not, it called to my mind the Benedictine tradition in which the abbey was founded.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

There was no sermon.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The peaceful, dignified simplicity of the service was a joy to me. I very much favour services where the brilliant Book of Common Prayer rites are allowed to stand on their own.

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

I was nearly embarrassed by the onset of a giggling fit. One of my priest-friends is a specialist in liturgy, and never cared for my love for the 1662 communion. In the midst of my ecstasy, a remark he had once made suddenly worked its way into my mind: "What a stupid way to celebrate the eucharist!"

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

Though there were abbey staff on hand to assist visitors, the influx of tourists following the service prevented "looking lost" from having impact. The vicar was on hand to greet those attending, but she was diverted by a gentleman who approached her for a "longer than greeting" conversation.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Not applicable, but there are many wonderful eating spots nearby, including some that actually offer Sunday roasts, in contrast to the tapas trend.

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

10 – The intellectual and aesthetic offerings, combined with the abbey's stated approach that "we believe in being welcoming without being overwhelming," would be a treasure.

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

Yes, particularly knowing the history of Bath Abbey, and that no obstacle keeps the Church from continuing its mission.

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

The aura I felt of prayer, peace, and timelessness.

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