Cotswold Manor House given to this Benedictine Order in the 1920s. It has an idyllically beautiful park on the Cotswold Edge, above Gloucester. They then built a very ambitious and huge new monastery, which was acclaimed at the time and must now be listed. It is now empty and has been for the last ten years or so. It is the blot on an otherwise smiling landscape. The monks now live and worship in the manor house, which they did while the new monastery was being built, so it has an Arts and Crafts style chapel, with an aisle for the general public. The monastery has hosted various projects: bird park, auction room, cafe, pottery shop, kitchen garden, incense factory (but unfortunately not farming). Most of these are still going. Guests on retreat can stay in the manor house.
The monks observe the Benedictine rule. They also find time to be friendly and welcoming to the general public, with no expectation that customers in the cafe will know anything about the religious life. Anyone can attend their services. They don't take money at all in the chapel, so I was unable to leave my calling card.
Since it is near Gloucester and sensationally beautiful, Prinknash (pronounced Prinnish) has many visitors as well as a devoted RC following.
The chapel and aisle for visitors are laid out at right angles, so you can't see how many monks are present without being really intrusive. There were six monks in the sanctuary celebrating, censing, processing, playing the organ, etc.
What was the name of the service?Solemn Mass.
How full was the building?
The visitors' aisle was a bit more than half full. If packed, it would hold upwards of 50.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Was your pew comfortable?
Yes. Standard wooden bench with no provision for kneeling, but that didn't matter – we knelt on the floor.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Silent and reverential.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
‘In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit’ (said in English, though much of the service was chanted in Latin).
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Service sheet. There was a formidable array of books, and for the other services (I spent the day) I was expertly guided by a monk. Most of the books are in Latin, with the chant in Gregorian notation.
What musical instruments were played?
Small organ in the monks' part of the chapel. I'm guessing it was electronic judging from the sound. It was played very well, supporting the singing without overpowering it.
Did anything distract you?
Wondering how I was going to leave a calling card. I never did.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Deeply reverential, with clouds of incense and beautifully timed ritual. At one point the monk swinging the censer disappeared in a cloud.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
2 — I didn't really get the sermon – but then, it wasn't aimed at me.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
About the Blessed Virgin Mary, who was having a Day: Queen of Heaven, Mother of God, Rose of Sharon. Poetry goes a long way, the preacher told us. He then related a story about someone they all knew who saw the Virgin Mary at Prinknash. ‘What did she look like?’ the preacher asked. ‘What was she wearing?’ ‘She looked beautiful and transcendent and perfect, and she was wearing ordinary clothes and wellies.’ ‘Of course she would be,’ he said, and ended, ‘Is it really as simple as that?’ Nobody laughed.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The chanting (not just at the mass – there was plenty of Gregorian chanting all day, though not at every service.) I thought they could have sung better, but it's not meant to be a performance. Regardless, the fact that there was so much of it was a joy. Later on, at vespers and benediction, I also loved the fact that I hadn't a clue what was going on.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The abandoned 1950s building sits heavy on the landscape.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Nothing. They come to pray, not to socialise, but after the mass several of the monks talked to the congregation outside.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
None. There is a cafe in a different part of the park.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
10 — There is so much I don't know. Solemn Benediction was the most obscure to me, with vespers a close second. That light-headed feeling of being completely at sea is almost ecstatic. It makes me want to find out more, though.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Extremely glad to be there.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
Delight that they use so much chant.