|836: St Mary's Minster, Berkleley, Gloucestershire, England|
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Mystery Worshipper: Chris Churchcrawler.
The church: St Mary's, Berkleley, Gloucestershire, England.
Denomination: Church of England.
The building: A medieval minster church, which once had its own monastic chantry, situated next to Berkeley Castle. The church dates from the 13th century and has a dark and eerie interior, even on a sunny day. There are several effigies in Yorkist collars, a side chapel full of tombs of the Berkley family, and a detached tower and a churchyard full of table top tombs of the local inhabitants. The church itself contains the tomb of Dr Edward Jenner, discoverer of the smallpox vaccine. I have heard people say that the building has a haunted feel to it. Certainly the boundaries between the centuries appear quite blurred here. There is apparently a medieval corbel with two female gossips surmounted by a toad – I wonder if they were meant to represent anyone in the town!
The church: The church ministers to two local prisons in the vicinity.
The neighbourhood: Next door to St Mary's is the medieval castle where King Edward II was allegedly killed with a red hot poker. Berkley is a small country town which hasn't changed a lot since the beginning of the 20th century. The houses have not been modernised and consist of a mixture of 17th and 18th century buildings. The town is deadly quiet like a ghost town, except for the day I visited, oddly enough. I went for a walk and there were more people using the shops than during the week.
The cast: The vicar, Rev. Simon Richards.
What was the name of the service?
How full was the building?
I was quite suprised for a rural town church! There must have been roughly 100 people, all very well dressed for the occasion – quite different from your average church, and this gave it a feeling of a past era. There were also quite a few younger people in church, too.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
I arrived early and was welcomed by a verger. I decided to go for a walk around the town. I came back to the sound of the bells and walked in. I had a nod from a young person handing out the books, but in good old Anglican style, nobody said hello or introduced themselves.
Was your pew comfortable?
Fairly comfortable. A nice lady eventually came and joined me as I guess I looked quite lonely on my own at the back of the church.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Fairly noisy. A lot of children running around. There should have been some organ music to set the atmosphere, however the organ started only about five minutes before the service. As I looked at the medieval walls and wall paintings, there was a sense of other worldliness – something which seemed to connect the past centuries with this one.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Christ is risen – Alleluia Alleluia!" I struggled to hear as the vicar was stood behind a medieval stone screen. There was a nave communion table and I wondered why he didn't just go and stand next to that where we could see him.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
A notice sheet and printed order of service and Hymns Ancient and Very Ancient... sorry, I mean Modern.
What musical instruments were played?
A large organ hidden in a loft in the dark chancel opposite Edward Jenner's tomb. There was no choir at the service.
Did anything distract you?
The building was one big distraction. The words from the reading in 1 Corinthians 15, all about the conquering of death and the end times – "The last enemy to be destroyed is death" – seemed to echo round the ancient 13th century painted walls. There is a pre-Reformation painting of Christ in judgment. The people who lived in those times clearly were afraid of the end times due to plague and short life spans, and those words must have meant so much.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Very stiff upper lip. The organ playing was very moving, especially before the service. At communion, the soft playing gave it all a real sense of simplicity
Exactly how long was the sermon?
About 20 minutes.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 I couldn't hear a lot of what he was saying – he could have done with miking up a bit.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Basically, he did a good talk for the children. There was an Easter egg hunt for the children around the church, and a painted picture of the tomb of Jesus. Inside each chocolate Easter egg was the message, "He is risen."
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The well played organ and the sense of interconnecting the past with the present. Most churches treat the past as something not worth reflecting on – but it does tell us who we are.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The inability of any of the congregation to engage even with a nod, hello or "Where are you from?" Note even at the peace. Anyone not used to an Anglican service would feel very lonely. I made an attempt to talk to the ministers, who were friendly, but otherwise not a soul said a word! The odd thing about it was that no one appeared to be chatting with anyone else, either. As I pop in on more and more Anglican churches, this seems to be the norm!
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Not a word from the people sat around me – no one even gave me eye contact. Having said that, the town has an air of this when you visit the few shops. I often wonder whether such congregations are really that bothered about attracting new members into the midst.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Not a drop of anything in the building other than communion wine. I was rather amused to read in the leaflet that all the leftover bread and wine is consumed after the service. What happens if not many people turn up?!
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
2 This is a wonderful place to worship in, although a trifle cold. This applies to the welcome from the church as well as the climate.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
An isolated one!
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The words from the reading about conquering death, with the Christ in judgment picture above the chancel arch. I think it shows that people were just as worried by events in those days and they really thought the end days were close. Today we may live longer, but there are still threatening world problems.