The handsome Priory Church of St Mary is mostly a rebuild of 1430 except the tall tower, which is 18th century. The Benedictine priory on this spot was founded in 1094 and may have occupied the site of an earlier monastic community. But monastic buildings have long since gone, except for the priory church, which became a place of worship for a parish created in 1430. However the priory's great treasures are the rich medieval choir stalls from the older church dating from 1345. The church is hard by the forbidding walls of Lancaster Castle, the personal property of the Queen (not part of constitutional Crown Estate) and until very recently a working prison. Coroner courts and criminal courts still occupy parts of it. The ancient title of Lancaster Priory also remains in use today, so this fortified hilltop is crowded with charming anachronisms.
The priory appears to have a wide reach and a rich variety of spiritual and secular activities, many revolving around music. Their Festival of Song was running during my visit. ‘Music is at the heart of all we do,’ their website declares. They must therefore have been hit badly by the closure during the current pandemic. Live worship is now back, though they are also still streaming for those reluctant to attend in person.
Set on top of a steep hill above the River Lune, the priory looks out to the east over the town of Lancaster and to the west commands a far-reaching views over flat landscapes towards the sea. The vast Heysham nuclear power station is a distant landmark on the horizon. Though just a few steps from the centre of town and the railway station, Lancaster Priory enjoys a surprisingly rural setting.
The minister, a vested assistant, a choir of 16, all led by a beadle. Plus an organist.
What was the name of the service?Choral Evensong.
How full was the building?
About 25 in the pews plus a choir of 16 and ministers, so not very full. We were also being streamed on Facebook.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes, two welcomers greeted me and provided books and paperwork.
Was your pew comfortable?
A traditional pew with cushions and very comfortable, especially for evensong, as you can steady yourself on the pew in front as you sit and stand several times.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quiet and thoughtful. A few visitors to the building, worshippers trickling in. Glorious late afternoon sunshine was making its way through the stained glass windows.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
‘Almighty and most merciful Father …’ (the words of the general confession).
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Book of Common Prayer, New English Hymnal, a generic evensong sheet, and this week’s sheet with the hymns, psalms, etc. and notices.
What musical instruments were played?
Did anything distract you?
I wondered why those named in the weekly service sheet were not named in the intercessions, even by their Christian names.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Traditional Anglican choral evensong, more or less from the Book of Common Prayer, with two hymns and no sermon. The choir did not sound overly rehearsed but they lent the English renaissance music (Farrant, Tomkins, Gibbons) the charm of madrigals, sung lustily.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The lines from one of our hymns: ‘Teach me to live, that I may dread / The grave as little as my bed.’ This seems a fine preface to the Collect Against All Perils, which are my favourite words of the evensong service. The late summer evening sunshine streaming in from the west through the stained glass of the priory. After a grey, overcast day with intermittent rain, it felt like a blessing.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Nothing hellish, but juggling two service sheets and two books keeps you on your toes even if you are a regular at evensong. Newcomers must be quite bemused.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I had to head for a train home, but I don’t think there was coffee. It was by then past cocktail hour, so I expect dinner was on the minds of most present.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 — The apparent liveliness of parish life was attractive, so if I am in Lancaster perhaps I shall.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?