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2700: Downside Abbey, Stratton-on-the-Fosse, England
Downside Abbey Photo: Stewart Monckton
Mystery Worshipper: Bunbury (O'Remus).
The church: Abbey Church of St Gregory the Great at Downside, Stratton-on-the-Fosse, England.
Denomination: Roman Catholic, Diocese of Clifton.
The building: This minor basilica, one of three in the United Kingdom, rather dominates the quiet Somerset countryside in which it nestles. Begun in 1882, it is in the Gothic Revival style and is the work of several architects; Sir Giles Gilbert Scott (he of red telephone box fame) is responsible for the impressive and airy nave, which remains unfinished. The lovely and beautiful Lady chapel is the work of Sir Ninian Comper and is generally regarded as one of Comper's most successful projects. There is also an impressive shrine to St Oliver Plunkett, the last Catholic martyr to die in England (canonised in 1975), containing much of his body – his head rests in Ireland at Drogheda. The church, attached to the monastic buildings, has a truly mediaeval and prayerful feel. They are currently fund-raising for overhaul of the extensive roof structure.
The church: The abbey is home to a community of Benedictine monks founded in 1605 in Douai, Flanders. The community (as it then was) fled France in 1793 (Flanders having been taken over by revolutionaries) and came to Shropshire, finally settling in Somerset 200 years ago this year. The community, which became a monastery in 1935, currently numbers about 15 monks. It has a Catholic co-education, fee-paying school for youngsters aged 11-18 years with approximately 370 pupils.
The neighbourhood: The church is situated in Stratton-on-the Fosse, Somerset, lying on the road between Shepton Mallet and Bath. It was once part of the Somerset coal-mining area on the edge of the Mendip hills. The Duchy of Cornwall, one of the oldest English duchies, is a major landholder along with Downside. The village today is primarily a dormitory for the larger conurbations of Bath, Bristol and even London.
The cast: My printed A4 sheet told me that the celebrant and preacher was Dom Boniface Hill, OSB, with the Revd Martin Queenan as deacon and the Revd Jean-Patrice Coulon, MSFS, as subdeacon.
The date & time: Feast of Our Lady Queen of the Apostles, Saturday, 31 May 2014, 11.00am.

What was the name of the service?
Solemn High Mass of Our Lady in the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite.

How full was the building?
At 10.50 when I arrived there were about 20 people present, whose number doubled with the sauntering into the choir stalls of members of St John’s Festival Choir. At the start of mass, there were about 50 bottoms on pews. The church is large and our small congregation hardly filled the place.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
No, there was no one to greet worshippers, and those milling about outside studiously ignored an unfamiliar face. You needed to be astute to realise that the plastic storage box propped on a chair contained material pertinent to the service.

Was your pew comfortable?
Individual chairs arranged in blocks of about eight in two banks of seats down the nave, each row with a moveable kneeler for the width of the row. It was comfortable in a penitential kind of way.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Prayerful, broken only by a dear soul who arrived just as the altar party reached the sanctuary, and who clattered along the stone floor in what sounded like nine inch heels.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
The first liturgical words were sung: "Salve" something or other (the words of the Gregorian chant were indistinct – see below), possibly "Salve sancta parens" (Hail holy mother), an introit for feasts of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The first sung words from the celebrant were "Dominus vobiscum" (The Lord be with you).

What books did the congregation use during the service?
A booklet for praying the traditional mass produced by the Latin Mass Society, and an A4 printed leaflet giving details of the cast and music as well as basic details of what to do during the mass ("The Order of Standing and Kneeling" is how it was described), and the translation of the gospel reading, but not the epistle or the propers; I guess if you wanted to know, you should have brought your own missal with you.

What musical instruments were played?
Organ, played well. The mass – Missa Ave Maris Stella (Victoria), with an offertory motet Exultate Deo (Palestrina) and communion motet Ave Maria (Hassler) – was competently, if sometimes hesitantly, sung (my leaflet told me) by St John’s Festival Choir – rather thin and weedy on the top line, though. I long to attend an extraordinary form mass where guitars are played, but I fear I may wait some time for that.

Did anything distract you?
The dear deacon really would do well to brush up on his Fortescue and O’Connell as to the roles properly assigned to him during a high mass. He had to be prompted, cajoled, pushed and hissed at by the master of ceremonies.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Solemn high mass in the extraordinary form is not for the faint-hearted. As spikey as Catholic ritual gets – beautifully celebrated, it should be noted, by Dom Boniface, who glided like a ballerino around the sanctuary.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
9 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 – Dom Boniface's delivery was precise but not pedantic, a monastic equivalent of a soothing BBC Radio 4 voice. Could listen to him on a loop. He was self-effacing, apologising for seeking to tell us a little about himself rather than illuminating the gospel reading for the day, but his few words were an excellent and humble exposition of the saints and martyrs who have inspired him. It was prayerful, encouraging, evangelising and good to hear.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
He spoke of St Boniface (whose feast day fell in the days after the mass), the apostle of the Germans (from Crediton, Devon); St Cuthbert Mayne, the first of the "seminary priest" martyrs (born in Barnstaple, Devon); St Oliver Plunkett (whose relics are enshrined at Downside); Blessed Dominic Barberi, who received Blessed John Henry Newman; and others.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The scale of Downside is impressive, and somehow its cavernous neo-Gothic style, as well as some fine Catholic liturgy, encouraged one to pray. And the silence of the mass, save for the singing, reminded one of St Isaac, who said: "If you love truth, be a lover of silence. Silence, like the sunlight, will illuminate you in God."

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Well, the Old Rite is just too prissy for me: liturgical actions that have no immediate meaning make the whole thing rather remote and inaccessible. Mass done "to" me, rather than "with" me as a participant, not helped by the altar seeming to be a long way off. But perhaps that’s the point! The one thing that was truly awful was the singing of the Gregorian chant by two or three cantors who really didn’t know what they were doing: seeming to pick notes at random, starting, stopping, starting again on another note, and then droning like vacuum cleaners sucking all the life-blood and engagement out of every worshipper. If you can’t sing chant properly, just don’t!

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I wandered around the basilica for a bit. There were one or two monks doing their thing, and the servers flouncing about clearing the altar. But not a word was said. I lit a candle at the shrine of St Oliver for Dom Boniface’s intentions.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
6 – I loved the abbey church and would very much like to attend a conventual service to hear how the monastic community sings the chant and celebrates the mass, but it was difficult to judge on the basis of this special mass.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
It was humbling to be at a mass to celebrate 25 years of an individual’s life as a priest – and he still looked so young! And it was also helpful to be reminded of those who have given their blood for their faith.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
I will still be reflecting on the prayerful homily.
 
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