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Abbey, the Priory and Parish Church of St Andrew, Hexham,
Church of England, Diocese
St Wilfrid founded the church in AD674, when he built a monastery
using stones from the ruins of a nearby Roman bridge. The present
crypt of the abbey, which once contained the relics of St Andrew,
is all that remains of this early church and it is possibly
the best example of an Anglo-Saxon crypt still in existence.
A chalice dating from Anglo-Saxon times can also be seen in
the abbey. Much of the present building dates back to the 12th
century, when it was constructed in the Early English style
of architecture, but there have been other additions at various
times since then. It has been a Benedictine abbey, a cathedral,
an Augustine priory and, since the dissolution of the monasteries
in 1537, the parish church of Hexham. The entrance in the south
transept leads to the very worn night stair, once used by monks
to come down to worship from their sleeping quarters. It is
now used by the choir coming from their school to sing at services.
Magnificent stained glass lancet windows abound in the abbey.
Unfortunately reformers and puritans destroyed the original
medieval glass, and it was only from Victorian times that they
have gradually been restored. A modern circular altar lies in
the crossing, and behind it the chancel screens support a very
impressive organ. Small chantries and chapels surround the choir
area. It contains the high altar, old carved choir stalls with
misericords, and the frith stool, which St Wilfrid himself may
have sat on (with, one hopes, a cushion). It also contains well-preserved
15th century wood painting panels depicting the Dance of Death,
which is an allegory of death in the form of a skeleton dancing
with the pope and kings.
Their very busy schedule of services can be found on their website.
Many diverse groups meet at the abbey, from bell ringers to
youth groups. There is also a long history of excellent music;
there are organists, four choirs, spring and summer concerts,
and an annual festival that promotes quality concerts of mainly
sacred and classical music. Full details are on their website.
The neighbourhood: Hexham is a charming market town built on a hill next to the River Tyne in the glorious rolling countryside of Northumberland. It is very close to Hadrianís Wall, which attracts many tourists. The abbey dominates the town, although an alternative landmark proved to be a factory in the outskirts of the town that belched enormous plumes of white smoke!
The president and celebrant was the Revd Canon Graham Usher,
rector. The preacher was the Revd Alan Currie, assistant priest.
The date & time:
Third Sunday of Lent, 15 March 2009, 10.00am.
What was the name of the service?
How full was the building?
The service took place in the nave and I would say it was mostly
full, with about 200 people in the congregation. They were predominantly
elderly and quite smartly dressed.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
A sideman greeted us with a polite good morning and handed us
all the literature we needed for the service. The president
came over to us and asked if we were visitors and where had
we come from. He said he hoped we would enjoy the service and
invited us to coffee afterwards.
Was your pew comfortable?
The pew was as comfortable as you could expect and the hassock was pleasantly padded to enable us to kneel comfortably.
How would you describe the pre-service
This was one of the quietest churches I have visited. It was very peaceful and reverential.
What were the exact opening words of the
"Good morning and welcome to this service on the third
Sunday of Lent."
What books did the congregation use during the
Hymns Old and New, a service booklet entitled A
Service of Holy Communion in Lent, and a pew sheet giving
lots of information about the weekís services and events. Bibles
(New Revised Standard Version) were to be found in the pews.
What musical instruments were played?
The only instrument played was the organ, and what a magnificent
organ it was! There have been many organs at the abbey, but
the current 1974 organ is from Lawrence Phelps and Associates
of Erie, Pennsylvania, USA, with two manuals and pedal. The
design includes not merely what is necessary for music of classical
composers but also satisfies the needs of the romantic repertoire
and music associated with all periods of the Anglican tradition.
The stop list includes string tones as well as that sound so
characteristic of the English organ, the full swell; all this
done with 34 stops!
Did anything distract you?
A determined vociferous baby decided to compete with the preacher
so it was very difficult to follow his sermon.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or
It was fairly high church but certainly not Anglo-Catholic.
The crucifer led the opening procession but there was no thurifer;
in fact, incense was not used at all during the service. The
robed choir consisted of a large number of adults and youngsters,
and the fully vested clergy in white albs and purple chasubles
followed them. During the service, which followed Common Worship
Order One in modern language, there was bowing, crossing and
genuflecting at appropriate times.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
4 He had a Scottish accent and had to compete with a highly vocal baby so it was often extremely difficult to make out what he was saying. Also he came to a very abrupt halt after saying something that I just couldnít make head nor tail of.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon
He referred to the gospel reading as one to make us sit up.
It was Johnís account of Jesus being angry in the temple, because
it was being used as a place to sell animals and also money
changers were dealing there. Jesus identified himself as the
temple when he spoke about being risen from the dead. He then
went on to meditate about the middle period of Lent. We start
off exercising self-control by giving up small luxuries, but
we end up relaxing into Lent. Self-denial can become a denial
of the truth of ourselves, and the whole purpose of life is
to become closer to God. Lent is not the great opportunity of
the year for self-denial; it is the great opportunity of the
year for honesty.
Which part of the service was like being in
I mentioned earlier that the congregation appeared to be mainly
elderly. Well, the children and their parents appeared at the
beginning of the service, following the procession of choir
and clergy. It was just like watching the Pied Piper of Hamlyn!
They just kept coming to the altar and surrounding it until
the whole area in and around the altar was packed with children
of all ages, some of whom were swinging from the altar rails!
After some dialogue between the priests and the children, they
departed to their Sunday schools. At the end of the service
they came back in and the president quizzed them about what
they had been learning, which turned out to be the commandments.
I thought it was lovely to see how very much the children were
involved in the church.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
There was a moment, I think it was just before the sermon, when
I could feel the hair on the back of my neck rising because
of the awful racket I could hear. It just sounded as if a rock
band had started up at hundreds of decibels and I even craned
my neck to see where the rock band was. On not locating any
rock band at all, I realised that the noise was in fact coming
from the organ. I donít know what the piece of music was but
it certainly petrified me! I must say, though, that I thoroughly
enjoyed the rest of the music played by a very masterful organist.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Although we stayed for a while, I suspect we were taken for
tourists, which we were, so no one approached us.
How would you describe the after-service
We had received a very warm invitation to partake in refreshments after the service but were unable to stay because of another engagement.
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 If I lived here it would certainly be on my list.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
All those children! I donít think I have ever seen so many in a church.
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