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2062: The Priory Church, Edington, Wiltshire, England
The Priory of St Mary, St Katherine and All Saints, Edington, Wiltshire, England
Mystery Worshipper: Traveller.
The church: The Priory of St Mary, St Katherine and All Saints, Edington, England.
Denomination: Church of England, Diocese of Salisbury.
The building: A substantial ancient building, with battlements and crockets, a squat central tower, but with large windows in all the walls in typical perpendicular style. This gives a light and spacious feel to the interior. It is thought that the masons who had transformed the choir at Gloucester Cathedral built Edington Priory church before going on to construct the nave at Salisbury. No one is sure, because the church was first consecrated in 1361 and records are understandably scarce. It is described as the only perfect example of a monastic church in Wiltshire (which has plenty of superb churches, so there is good competition). The church suffered during the Reformation, with the church losing statuary and stained glass. The pink and white plaster ceiling of the nave and transepts dates from this time. However, by the 19th century, the church fabric was actually dangerous and a major restoration in the 1880s put things back in order and provided the current seating. Further major repairs were undertaken over several years.
The church: Church life is thriving with a normal congregation of around 60 in a village of 270 dwellings. Its main claim to fame is the week-long Festival of Music within the Liturgy held in August each year, held for the 55th time in 2010. The service which is the subject of this report was part of the second full day of the festival.
The neighbourhood: The church is the central part of a small village at the foot of a steep escarpment which leads up to Salisbury Plain. A small rural road links half a dozen villages just to the east of Westbury in a deeply rural, picture-postcard-worthy landscape. It isn't totally peaceful as the main London to Penzance railway line passes less than a mile from the church and combine harvesters roar around the arable fields at this time of year.
The cast: Celebrant: the Revd Canon Paul Rose; deacon: the Revd Dr Carolyn Hammond; sub-deacon: the Revd Dr Graham Southgate (vicar of the parish); preacher: the Revd Canon Jeremy Davies; plus crucifer, thurifer, acolytes and a few spare clergy. The festival has three choirs: a schola cantorum of 12 male voices that specialises in plainsong, whilst the consort of 17 experienced adult mixed voices and the nave choir of 18 boy trebles (drawn from a variety of cathedrals and similar establishments) and 12 men sing in exquisite harmony. All three choirs were present at this service.
The date & time: Tuesday, 24 August 2010, 11.30am.

What was the name of the service?
Solemn Eucharist.

How full was the building?
Packed. The standard pew in the church would hold four in comfort, but most had five people packed in. There were folding chairs beside every pew and only a couple of spare seats. The congregation numbered around 320 people.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
There was a bustle of people in the porch, with one member of the congregation in charge of selling the festival companion booklet that had full details of the week. As we already had a booklet, we received a happy smile and a welcome word.

Was your pew comfortable?
We were lucky in having only four in the pew. Even after a service of an hour and a quarter (and arriving 50 minutes before the "off" to get a good seat), it remained comfortable. Many regulars, however, brought cushions.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Noisy and bustling. Choir practice for the nave choir was in progress, so there was plenty to interest the early arrival. The festival director welcomed everyone and set the tone for the service with ten minutes to go, asking people to be silent for the organ prelude, as this is part of the service. He had a series of amusing ways during the week of asking people to ensure that that their mobile phones were turned off for the service (see the final section of this report).

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
The festival has produced a booklet with the rubric followed for the four services used during the festival (matins, eucharist, evensong and compline), with all the stands and sits marked in. The eucharist service is from Common Worship. The hymns were from the New English Hymnal.

What musical instruments were played?
The organ is adequate for parish use, but the festival makes demands on it that stretch it beyond fair use and a project is under way to purchase a new instrument for the building.

Did anything distract you?
The "good" seat I had gave me a view down the centre aisle so I could see the altar party standing in front of the nave altar. The celebrant had a sizeable label of what looked like a bar-coded laundry tag on his alb, just above the hem. Probably only a dozen people in the church could see it, but once seen, my eyes spotted it every time the celebrant turned.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Stiff as the brocade on the altar party's vestments. It was well executed formal liturgy. The alleluia was chanted, the gospel was chanted. Everything that could be was censed, but there were no bells during the service.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
10 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
10 – The festival draws the best in music and liturgical practice, which includes the preachers for the week. Mr Davies is precentor of Salisbury Cathedral and was in similarly exalted company, but his was among the best we heard. He had comprehensive notes, but did not read his offering, establishing a good rapport with the congregation.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The theme of the week was Jesus' seven last words from the cross, of which Tuesday covered his words to the penitent thief: "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise." Interestingly (well, I hadn't noticed it before), the penitent thief is the only person in the gospels to call Jesus by his given name – everyone else uses a title: Master, Lord, Rabbi, etc. The preacher developed this theme that the "outsiders" (to accepted religious practice) in the gospel can easily become the favoured "insiders" who receive God's blessing. Apart from the penitent thief, the prodigal son and the Roman centurion are other examples. He used a poem from Monica Furlong to illustrate the opposite effect: those on the inside of religious practice who are sure of their status imposing their will on others. Those who really help are those who just do things naturally.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The choral music, which is not surprising in a festival of music within the liturgy. The schola sang the plainsong alleluia and Vos qui secuti estis me as one of the communion motets. The consort sang the mass to a setting by Cardosa (Portuguese, 1566-1650) and the nave choir sang Brahms' How lovely are thy dwellings fair as the offertory motet and S.S. Wesley's Cast me not away as a second communion motet.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The general information part of the festival companion booklet frowned on two practices in particular: placing cushions on pews early to keep seats, and people talking during choir rehearsal. Both still happened, by people who were obvious regulars to the festival. Talking (at quite loud volumes and about trivialities) during choir rehearsal seemed bizarre. People have come to hear good music and the choirs get little opportunity for rehearsal, so why distract the musicians and make their task harder? Why not listen and get an early idea of the shape of the music that will be used in the liturgy?

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
We were ignored, as there were hundreds in church (mostly strangers to the parish), and people moved slowly.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was no refreshment provided, but there was a church-run coffee stall in the car park outside. With a late start, we felt it was now lunchtime.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
N/A – This was not a regular service in the church, so cannot be taken as a guide to regular practice. However, the stewards drawn from the local congregation seemed friendly so the omens are good.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, the festival and this service is a wonderful opportunity to "fill up" on the best in Anglican music, liturgy and preaching. We heard someone describe the festival as "a retreat with knobs on", which sums it up nicely.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The plea to turn off mobile phones (taken from Gloucester Cathedral, where the River Severn runs close by). "If you want to go to hell, let your mobile ring its bell. If you want to go to heaven, throw your handset in the Severn."
 
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