Tewkesbury Abby

Tewkesbury Abbey, Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire, England


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Tewkesbury Abbey
Location: Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 27 November 2011, 6:00pm

The building

Much of the Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin at Tewkesbury dates from the 11th century. Pevsner described it as having probably the largest and finest Romanesque tower in England. It certainly dominates the old town area of Tewkesbury. Notable features of the interior include the massive Norman pillars in the nave and some impressive and detailed roof bosses in the stunning vaulted roof.

The church

The church is proudly Anglo-Catholic (a waft of incense greeted me as I entered) and hosts a number of church groups, including a mothers' union and sewing guild, plus a vast variety of children's and young people's groups. There are four services on a Sunday and three on weekdays.

The neighborhood

Tewkesbury is a charming market town set at the confluence of the Rivers Severn and Avon in the west of England. It is part of the Cotswolds, an area of outstanding natural beauty. The old town area is particularly lovely, with many half-timbered Tudor buildings. On the evening I was there, it was hosting a Christmas market, which was surprisingly good fun.

The cast

The vicar, the Revd Canon Paul Williams.

What was the name of the service?

Advent Carol Service.

How full was the building?

The central seated area was pretty full, plus some people were seated in the overspill plastic seat area. There were maybe 250 people in all.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

As I entered I was handed a service sheet by a woman who, confusingly, said: "Thank you" (I thought I was supposed to say that!).

Was your pew comfortable?

It was a rather uncomfortable wooden chair that, in addition, wobbled due to the unevenness of the ancient stone floor on which it stood.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

The organ was playing and there was a gentle buzz of conversation.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

The vicar said something like (the acoustics, while good for choral singing, were quite poor for speech): "Welcome to the first of our Christmas services."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

A specially printed service booklet.

What musical instruments were played?


Did anything distract you?

I was enjoyably distracted trying to make out the roof bosses. As the service progressed, I also became unduly fascinated by the gentleman next to me. He did not join in with any of the congregational hymns, but kept his mouth firmly shut. Also, just a mention for the embarrassing moment after one of the readings when a mobile phone went off at length.

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

The worship was led by two choirs (the abbey choir and schola cantorum, which includes boys from the local prep school and sings at weekday abbey services) and followed the printed service. The format was like a Christmas nine lessons and carols service, with lessons distributed through a mixture of congregational hymns and choral pieces. The service opened and concluded with prayer.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

There was no sermon.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The choral singing was magical. The schola cantorum in particular are extremely good and have made many recordings.

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

The service went on for over an hour, which was heavy going on the uncomfortable chair. Also I became rather drowsy and was grateful for the congregational hymns, which woke me up at regular intervals.

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

I did stand around for a few minutes, but people were either leaving or chatting with friends, so no one noticed me.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There was no after-service tea, coffee or soft drinks.

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

2 – It's a bit hard to judge a church on a carol service, but I just got nothing spiritual from this service at all. It was more like a test of endurance than a religious service.

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

My impression was that it was more about Christmas than Christ. It was more like a choral concert than an act of worship.

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

Sitting on an uncomfortable chair feeling tired.

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