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||1324: Wells Cathedral, Somerset,
Mystery Worshipper: Traveller.
The church: Cathedral Church of St Andrew in Wells, Somerset, England.
Denomination: Church of England.
The building: Dating from 1180, this is a wonderful example of an
English Gothic cathedral: clean, light and airy. The eastward view from
the nave is dominated by the "scissor arches," a stone bridge
inserted around 1340 after the foundations at the crossing began to sink
and the building began to crack following the raising of the central tower.
The west front is glorious, with 300 statues telling the Christian story
in limestone. There are niches for around 500; Cromwell's troops are thought
to have destroyed the lower tiers.
The church: Wells Cathedral bustles with activity. In addition to
receiving hundreds of thousands of visitors each year (especially in foul
weather – the head virger describes the building as "the biggest umbrella
in Somerset"), the cathedral sponsors a wide variety of events ranging
from intimate concerts to huge services and national broadcasts. The daily
offices in the quire attract a congregation of regulars and visitors, and
the Sunday services are also well attended. Cathedrals are indeed a surprising
community, with clergy, virgers, guides and visitors making them busy places.
The neighbourhood: This is the cathedral church of the diocese of
Bath and Wells, a largely rural area in the west of England. Wells describes
itself as the smallest city in England, the cathedral being its justification
for city status. The sheer size and bulk of the cathedral dominate the city.
The name of Wells is appropriate, as St Andrew's Well in the grounds of
the bishop's palace delivers a constant stream of water into the moat around
this impressive structure and overflows into the gutters in the main street.
This source of fresh water was the probable reason for the area becoming
The cast: The Very Rev. John Clarke, dean, was the celebrant. The
Rev. Canon Patrick Woodhouse, precentor, served as deacon and delivered
the sermon. The reader was Mrs Madeleine Harding. The Rev. Canon Andrew
Featherstone, chancellor, made some welcoming remarks at the start of the
The date & time: Sunday, 13 August 2006, 9.45am.
What was the name of the service?
How full was the building?
Probably around 250 people in the congregation, plus 50 in the nave sanctuary
(40 of whom were in the choir – see more below).
Did anyone welcome you personally?
I was one of the 40 in the choir, visiting on a week long choral singing
course centred on the cathedral, so I had arrived early to the rehearsal
in the song room before the welcomers were in place! With the service underway
and from the choir stalls, we could see people at the rear of the building
handing leaflets to late arrivals.
Was your pew comfortable?
The choir stalls around the nave altar were stylish and attractively modern.
But if I leaned back too far whilst sitting, my head would strike the music
rack on the stall behind.
How would you describe the pre-service
The organ was playing some tastefully discreet music to cover the bustle of people arriving and finding places.
What were the exact opening words of the
Canon Featherstone moved in front of the altar and said, "Welcome.
All the notices for the week are on the back page of the service leaflet.
The service will start once the clock has struck." Wells is obviously
proud of its very early (c. 1400) clock in the north transept that rings
every quarter. The virgers disable the ring during the service, but the
chime marks the start.
What books did the congregation use during the
A 12 page booklet printed on bright yellow paper was given to all worshippers.
It was especially produced for the service and contained the words of the
hymns, readings and congregational parts, together with indications of the
sections of the liturgy, not the full words.
What musical instruments were played?
A magnificent pipe organ whose case sits on top of the pulpitum screen,
with the console placed to allow the organist to see into nave and quire.
This splendid instrument is able to provide mood music, accompany hymns
or deliver a majestic voluntary.
Did anything distract you?
Being in the choir in a strange church, the concentration level was such
that not much distracted me. I don't remember any mobile phones going off,
and only a few people arrived late. Had I not taken the guided tour earlier
in the week, I would have been struck at first site by the wonderful architecture
and the appearance of the nave. I do remember wondering during the New Testament
reading whether one of the acolytes was male or female!
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or
It was English cathedral worship at its most measured: beautiful and dignified.
Choir and celebrants were led to their places by virgers holding staves
of office as though they had been doing it for centuries, as, of course,
their predecessors have been doing. There were no bells, and no incense,
and no lingering smell of incense from earlier services, for which this
singer gave thanks.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
10 The precentor has a marvellous speaking voice and a most compelling
style. He had me on the edge of my seat. He had just become a grandfather
a week before and told tales of first holding his grandson, aged 16 hours,
and thinking, "How precious is life, but I do not know him." Very
few sermons make me really rethink attitudes, but this one did. I wish that
many people in authority around the world could have heard it.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon
Human life is sacred. Human beings cannot know each other fully – but God
can. He then linked this to the Gospel reading (John 6:41-51), where the
Jews wondered how Jesus could claim to be the Bread of Life when they knew
who his father and mother were. Next, he moved into science, saying that
the human genome project, which claims that man will be fully understood
once genes and chromosomes are fully understood, is bad science, whereas
good science realises that such knowledge only raises deeper questions about
the nature of humanity. The celebrated German physicist Werner Heisenberg
found as much with his uncertainty principle, which states that as one aspect
of a quantity is measured with increasing accuracy, other aspects of the
same quantity become increasingly uncertain. The disdain shown for life
in the Middle East, where both sides take lives precious to God whilst claiming
to be inspired by religion, is not disproportionate (voice dripping with
sarcasm) but blasphemous (voice raised to make the very stones shake).
Which part of the service was like being in
English cathedrals are wonderful spaces in which to sing. The softest pianissimo
fills the space; the loudest fortissimo can be magnificent without being
overpowering. No broadcast or recording can replicate being there, and the
privilege of being part of the choir is best of all. The choir sang the
(unaccompanied) Byrd Mass for Five Voices and the Byrd Ave
Verum Corpus as a communion motet. Just let me sing this sort of music
in this sort of space in heaven, please.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The contrast between the choir music and the congregational hymns could
not be more marked. Tacky, tasteless modern words to traditional tunes always
make me cringe, and these were no exception.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
The service leaflet invited everyone to coffee in the north transept, so
that was where people headed. The choir processed out and changed into civvies
first and then joined the queue for coffee with the rest. I happened to
be standing next to the dean, so we exchanged a few brief words.
How would you describe the after-service
Instant coffee made with lukewarm water served in disposable paper cups
– but anything wet and warm would have hit the spot at that stage. Although
I am not sure whether the coffee was fairly traded, there was a fair trade
stall set up next to the coffee table with items for purchase, so there
is a reasonable chance it may have been.
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 I have mixed feelings: the quality of liturgy and preaching 10;
architecture and atmosphere 10; but as I do not have the ability or the
means to sing in the regular choir, I'd have to listen to most of the music
rather than participate, if this were my regular church. And music in worship
is important to me.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
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