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||1404: Buckfast Abbey, Buckfastleigh, Devon, England
Mystery Worshipper: Aldhelm.
The church: Buckfast (St Mary's) Abbey, Buckfastleigh, Devon, England.
Denomination: Roman Catholic.
The building: According to their website, Buckfast Abbey is the only
English medieval monastery to have been restored and used again for its
original purpose. Founded as a Benedictine abbey in 1018, it became Cistercian
in 1147 following a period of decline and was completely rebuilt according
to Cistercian standards. Its affairs appear to have prospered until Henry
VIII decreed its dissolution in 1539. Those parts of Buckfast that were
not sold or flattened fell into ruin and remained so up until the 19th century.
In 1882 the abbey was reoccupied by a community of Benedictines from France,
who set about restoring the buildings to their original Cistercian design
based on careful planning, excavation and research. The restored abbey church
was reconsecrated on 25 August 1932. By the late 1970s Buckfast Abbey had
become one of the most visited places in the West Country, attracting well
over 300,000 visitors each year. It is a beautiful edifice, fairly austere
but reassuringly traditional. The interior is decidedly Gothic, with touches
of Romanesque, and features mosaic marble pavements and numerous side chapels.
All of the side chapels are traditional save for the Blessed Sacrament chapel,
which is modern and includes stained glass made by the monks themselves
in their workshop.
The church: The church serves as the abbey church for the community
of monks and as the local parish church. All of their daily services, including
the divine office (with vespers and compline in Latin) as well as mass,
are open to the public. Several masses are offered on Sunday, with the 10.30
mass being the focal point of the day for the monks. The abbey also maintains
seminar and conference facilities and an education centre available for
public use. Following an ancient monastic tradition, beekeeping is alive
and well at Buckfast, its apiaries producing over four tonnes of honey each
year and supplying queens to beekeepers all over the world. The monks also
produce a tonic wine commonly known as Buckie, which in some areas is alleged
to be the drink of choice for persons prone to anti-social behaviour when
drunk, although it is only one of a number of brands consumed abusively.
The neighbourhood: Situated on the edge of Dartmoor, Buckfastleigh
is in an area of outstanding natural beauty and so worth a visit simply
to enjoy the scenery. Attractions include the South Devon Valley Railway,
a steam railway following the old Ashburton line, and the ruins of 13th
century Holy Trinity Church, in whose churchyard stands the tomb of one
Richard Carbell, believed by locals to have been in league with the devil.
Stories of black dogs howling and breathing fire around the tomb are said
to have inspired Conan Doyle's novel The Hound of the Baskervilles.
The cast: As befits the humility of a monastic community, no significance
is placed upon the names of the concelebrants or preacher, and so sadly
these could not be identified.
The date & time: First Sunday in Lent, 25 February 2007, 10.30am.
What was the name of the service?
How full was the building?
About half full in the nave, possibly 200 congregants.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Pretty cool on the welcome front – a nice smile and a good morning
from a lady who handed me the mass book and an announcement sheet, but that
was it. My pew was otherwise empty, but a lady in the row in front was kind
enough to compliment me after mass on my singing.
Was your pew comfortable?
Pretty traditional oak and fairly unforgiving.
How would you describe the pre-service
Delightfully peaceful and reverential, just an odd murmur or two of greeting.
It was the first Sunday in Lent and so the organ was silent prior to the
service, which made the stillness more palpable.
What were the exact opening words of the
"In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
What books did the congregation use during the
The mass book gave the order of service, the readings, and prayers for the
day. The hymns and chants were on a separate sheet.
What musical instruments were played?
Pipe organ, and very well played indeed! First installed in 1922, the organ
was re-specified in 1952 as a four manual instrument with 70 speaking stops.
Did anything distract you?
This was one rare occasion when I experienced nothing to distract me. A
glamorous companion in the pew would have been nice but probably not much
of an aid to worship.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or
Modern Catholic, all in all very focused. Dignified and solemn but not precious.
Very much tempered to the requirements of the monks. Apart from the first
reading, the hymns and the offertory procession, there was no lay contribution.
I doubt the abbey has experienced the sound of steel band or a guitar.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 Perfectly clear and measured, delivered via an excellent sound system.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon
This being the first Sunday in Lent, the penitential nature of the season
and its importance as a preparation for Easter was the theme. Apparently
the word Lent comes from the Old English for spring, and this theme was
developed to suggest that it is a good time for taking stock of one's failures
and shortcomings and planting the seeds of renewal.
Which part of the service was like being in
The wonderful natural setting for the abbey, the fine architecture, reverential
liturgy and the plainsong combined to make for a pretty heavenly experience.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The service was billed as a community mass but I felt no sense of community
or of being welcome. The monks didn't exactly radiate joy or very much in
the way of smiles, but perhaps they don't do joy in an extroverted way.
It was all a bit academic and cold, but I suppose that's an inappropriate
adjective for the other place!
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Apart from the few kind words from the lady in front, absolutely nothing.
If they are working on increasing the size of the flock I can only assume
that it's via the power of prayer. It's certainly not through the warmth
of the embrace.
How would you describe the after-service
None offered and none taken. There is a coffee shop/restaurant on premises
but it seemed aimed more at the needs of the incoming revenue stream than
of the pilgrim.
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 I'm Anglican, not Catholic, but on many levels it would be inspiring
to worship here: fine music, careful attention to liturgy, all in a glorious
setting. But on a community level it could be hard work. Still, as an abbey
church, perhaps that's not what it's about.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a
Yes, no doubt on that score. But if joy is an essential quality of being
Christian, I wasn't a very successful one on this particular Sunday. I'll
just chalk it up to Lent, shall I?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The contrast between the beauty of the place and the fact that nobody seemed
to care that I was there.
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