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Cathedral, Somerset, England
© Joe Dunkley and used under license
The church: Cathedral
Church of St Andrew the Apostle, Wells, Somerset, England.
Church of England, Diocese of Bath and Wells.
The building: The
website modestly proposes that this is "perhaps the most
beautiful of the great English cathedrals." It's hard to
say what criteria one would use for a league table of cathedral
beauty, but no one can deny its majesty and the fascination
of its history and design. Built from about 1175 on the site
of an 8th century Saxon monastery, Wells Cathedral became the
first truly and fully Gothic church in England. At the time,
the style was still new even in France, where it originated;
so for the English, not much more than a century after the Norman
Conquest swept away so much of their Saxon heritage, this was
revolutionary and probably designed to shock and awe.
The first thing the worshipper would have seen is the massive
west end, deliberately built wider than the body of the church
to give an overwhelming impression of size, with its tier upon
tier of saints, apostles and martyrs glaring at the humble sinner
in Gothic admonition. Inside, the wonder continues with some
of the most remarkable vaulting in England and the distinctive
"scissor arches", a very clever architectural expedient
hit upon to help support the enormous central tower when it
threatened to collapse and bring down the whole church in the
14th century. Not as decorated and frilly as some cathedrals,
Wells can still keep you occupied for several hours, inside
and outside. Next to it there's the wonderful old ruined bishop's
palace, surrounded by a moat with swans.
The church: They
celebrate holy communion and cathedral eucharist each Sunday,
as well as choral matins and choral evensong. Holy communion,
matins and choral evensong are also held each weekday. Baptisms,
weddings and funerals are available for anyone requesting same,
no longer limited as they once were to persons living within
the Liberty (immediate neighbourhood). They sponsor a full programme
of concerts, recitals, lectures and exhibitions. I also got
the impression that the cathedral functions as a parish church.
At the same time, it does the cathedral thing with its museum,
gift shop, guided tours and, of course, its famous choir.
There has been a settlement here since Roman times. The city
sits on the edge of the Mendip Hills in pastoral Somerset in
the south-west of England. It's a tiny town to have such a big
takes its name from three ancient wells in the town, all dedicated
to St Andrew. A minster church similarly dedicated was founded
here in 704. The cathedral faces a beautiful green surrounded
by the houses of the clergy and the lucky rich. Mind you, Wells
itself seems pretty well heeled a gentle and genteel
place with many older people and fewer children than the regional
and national averages. That said, there are several well known
schools, most amenities, decent restaurants, and a weekly farmers'
market. And all that on a population of 11,000. It makes quite
a contrast with its much grittier neighbour, Shepton Mallet.
The cast: The
Rt Revd Peter Maurice, Bishop of Taunton; the Very Revd John
Clarke, Dean of Wells; Matthew Owens, organist and master of
the choristers. (Bishop of Taunton is the title given to suffragan
bishops of Bath and Wells.)
The date & time: Saturday
19 April 2014, 9.00pm.
What was the name of the service?
How full was the building?
About 200 to 250 people who half filled the nave; also a cast
of 40 musicians and half a dozen clergy. Most of the people
who came to this service seemed to know each other.
Did anyone welcome you
Personally, not as such. There were two people handing out orders
of service and candles as we arrived. Everybody queued up in
the cloister until a very large (though friendly) man shepherded
us outside through the west door. And there we stood, in front
of the cathedral, for some ten minutes, on a decidedly brisk
night, waiting for the proceedings to begin.
Was your pew comfortable?
No. The bare wooden chairs may be bearable for a regular service
(just) but this one lasted almost two hours. Both my wife and
I became very uncomfortable toward the end.
How would you describe the pre-service
As I said earlier, most of the congregation seemed to be locals,
so there was a lot of chitchat. We overheard some discussion of a disagreement between the church commissioners and the new bishop concerning his place of residence (I understand the matter has since been satisfactorily resolved). There
was a general air of anticipation for the start of the service,
particularly after we'd been outside in the cold for a while.
What were the exact opening words of the
"Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, on this most holy night when our Lord Jesus Christ passed from death to life, the Church invites her children throughout the world to come together in vigil and prayer."
What books did the congregation use during the
There was a 20-page order of service with everything we needed, including some responsory music. As we had to hold candles throughout, juggling prayer books and hymnals would not have been fun.
What musical instruments were played?
The Easter vigil centres around music and the Word, and, this
being a major cathedral, the music may have had a slight edge.
There was the organ, a brass ensemble, and the cathedral choir
of boys, girls and men.
Did anything distract you?
There were a few things. Outside, in front of the cathedral,
we gathered in a semicircle around a small brazier filled with
twigs. From this the paschal candle was to be lit. But when
the fire ignited, the wind came up and the flames almost engulfed
the dean and his subdeacon in mid-prayer. They had to beat a
hasty retreat through smoke and fire lest their vestments catch
alight. Someone hadn't thought that through properly. Once inside,
with the huge church lit only by hundreds of candles, attention
was easily focused on the meditative drama taking place in the
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or
As this was a service of meditation, there was little ritual
other than the procession of the paschal candle. After each
choir piece, the bishop recited a collect in (to my ears) a
rather detached way. At the Easter acclamation, there was a
certain amount of handbell ringing by the clergy. And then there
were, of course, the whooped-up readings (see below). Congregational
participation was minimal; there was one hymn at the end.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
There was no sermon.
Which part of the service was like being in
The cathedral was beautiful in the darkness, with myriad little
lights and the anticipation of a great celebration.
And which part was like
being in... er... the other place?
Not really hellish more of a distraction but as a musician, I found much of the music disappointing.
Instead of the beautiful and ancient Gregorian chant of the
great Easter hymn, the Exsultet, we got a choral setting
specially written for the cathedral choir. Now, call me an old
reactionary no, don't; I have no problem with new things
but if you're going to replace something ancient and
beautiful with something new, it needs to be of equivalent artistic
worth. This wasn't. It was an unfortunate pastiche of old and
new styles trite, forgettable, and way too long. And
ditto, unfortunately, for the other commissioned music. Then
things got bizarre: the Old Testament lessons were read by one
of the priests in what I suspect was meant to be a dramatic
delivery. From Genesis onwards, as soon as God spake, the organ
spoke with Him, noodling around misterioso while the
reader slowed down more and more. It was a little like a school
play and quite unnecessary. More in the hellish department the content and pace of the service
made it go on almost twice its advertised length, and by the end,
the cathedral chairs felt like instruments of torture. I thought
the season of penance was over.
What happened when you
hung around after the service looking lost?
The service ended with a bang. After a considerable amount of
processing around the church, we found ourselves back outside
the west end for the dismissal. As we declared "He is risen
indeed. Alleluia!", the bishop swung round and faced the
cathedral green. Suddenly from the dark there was an eruption
of fireworks (for which I am a sucker, although I must have
missed that rubric in the Prayer Book). We went "Ooh! Ahh!",
then we dispersed.
How would you describe the after-service
No refreshments. But after all that we badly needed a drink,
so we hurried to the pub next to the cathedral only to find
that the miserable place had already closed before 11.00
on a Saturday night! A few other couples coming up the street
behind us were similarly disappointed.
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 I would need to experience some more regular services before I made any judgement. The sense of community appears strong. The choir has a top flight reputation, although I don't know that they were at their best that night.
Did the service make you
feel glad to be a Christian?
Well, yes although I think this service would have confused
the wits out of any non-Anglican.
What one thing will you
remember about all this in seven days' time?
The organ accompanying the Voice of God.
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