St Mary Redcliffe, Bristol, England


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Mary Redcliffe
Location: Bristol, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 2 February 2020, 6:30pm

The building

Constructed from the late 13th to early 14th centuries in the Gothic style, but almost completely recut in the 19th century, the church looks at first sight like any other bypass church. Gorgeous and ostentatious, displaying the wealth and piety of the Bristol merchants. It dominated the port of Bristol at a time when Bristolians were considered uncultured nouveau riches. The north porch is world famous; the south porch is pretty splendid too. The interior is rich in vaulting, tracery, elaborate stone carving, a wooden statue of Queen Elizabeth I like a figurehead, merchants' tombs, and many later treasures. It is more dazzling than beautiful and looks its best lit for evensong.

The church

Active parish, caring for the homeless and supporting a night shelter as well as prayer groups, Bible study groups, Sunday school, etc. There is a cafe in the crypt, used for outreach as well as tourism. The 18th century English poet Thomas Chatterton wrote a lot of pseudo-medieval poems and pretended to discover them here. When his fraud was denounced, his brilliance as a poet got overlooked. He has still has a following of tourists.

The neighborhood

Redcliffe, a district adjoining Bristol’s city centre, has been swept away. The water is still there (no commercial shipping), as is the red cliff, which is honey-combed with caves (all locked). On top, there is one Georgian terrace remaining, and one Baroquish house (recently whitewashed). Apart from this, four-lane roads lined with recent hotels and flats have cut off the church from the rest of Bristol. The hospital has just been converted into luxury flats.

The cast

Three priests and a large choir processed in after the introit.

What was the name of the service?

Choral Evensong.

How full was the building?

It's a big church but we didn't make a bad show. About forty in the congregation; twenty-five in the choir. Three clergy, five ‘others.’

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Yes. A friendly sidesman on each door. The church is approached equally from the north and south. Then as I was sitting in my pew, one of the churchwardens came up and introduced herself with absolutely genuine goodwill.

Was your pew comfortable?


How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Half the congregation arrived early to hear the choir rehearsing. (We had already been treated to really spectacular bell ringing.) This was well worth doing, as the musical director is quite balletic and it was a joy to watch him as well as to hear the fruit of his labour. The other half arrived at the last minute and it was a relief to see the church filling up.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

‘Good evening and welcome.’

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Book of Common Prayer; New English Hymnal. There was a Bible in every other pew.

What musical instruments were played?


Did anything distract you?

The friendly churchwarden sang with real feeling as she took the collection. I was impressed that she knew all the words of all the verses of ‘Abide With Me.’

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

Absolutely traditional, sung very well by the choir. The ritual was well rehearsed and expertly performed – right down to a detail I haven't heard for ages: we forgave ‘them that’ (not ‘those who’) trespass against us.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

13 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

4 — The preacher spoke clearly and confidently, but I got the impression he realised half way through that he had dug himself into a hole.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The Temple (it was the Feast of the Presentation in the Temple). After quite a long introduction on what the Temple meant to the Jews, he reached the current fashionable view that the building doesn't matter; it's the people. (There could hardly be a more unsuitable building to say this in, so he then became more personal.) Where is God's temple now? It's in you. Do we let God's glory shine through us? Do we learn? Do we pray? Do we share our faith?

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The singing, the beauty of the words, the lighting.

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

The Christmas crib under the altar. It was absolutely central and surrounded with fairy lights. No excuse in February.

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

Everyone was friendly.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?


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

10 — If they did music earlier than the 19th century (which I'm sure they do) I would go whenever I could.

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

It was as good as any cathedral, which certainly makes me glad.

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

The singing churchwarden.

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