St Benedict's, Glastonbury, Somerset, England

St Benedict's, Glastonbury, Somerset, England


Info and corrections →

Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Benedict's
Location: Glastonbury, Somerset, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 9 September 2007, 12:00am

The building

The present building, well off the beaten tourist path, dates from around 1520 and is thought to have replaced an earlier structure dating from 1100. It is in the perpendicular style – one of two such churches in Somerset – with a clerestoried nave and embattled west tower. Noteworthy are a small window on the north porch once used by lepers to receive the sacrament, and some fine stained glass dating from 1840. One window depicts Joseph of Arimathea holding a staff, cuttings from which are thought to have engendered many of the trees growing in the area. See below for more on the legend of Joseph of Arimathea having visited Glastonbury.

The church

This is part of a united parish of Glastonbury. I was very surprised to see that this church still survives. In any other diocese it would have been made redundant but fortunately there is a small but elderly congregation that keeps it going.

The neighborhood

You couldn't get more interesting than Glastonbury. There is of course the Tor, a 500-foot hill on which rests a tower that is the only remaining part of a 14th century chapel. There are also the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey, once England's wealthiest. Joseph of Arimathea (in whose tomb Jesus was laid, and who is thought by some to have been Jesus' uncle) is said to have visited the site where Glastonbury now stands, bringing the young boy Jesus with him – a legend that inspired the hymn "And did those feet in ancient time." He is also said to have returned after Jesus' death, this time bringing the Holy Grail with him, which he may have buried somewhere near the foot of the Tor. Biblical legend aside, the present-day town is full of "hippy" shops and new age type people who often seem a bit incongruous with their lower-middle-class accents known as Estuary English.

The cast

Two church wardens – I believe their names were Ruth and Richard.

What was the name of the service?

Gamanfa ganu (literally "hymn sing"), a celebration of great Welsh hymns

How full was the building?

It filled out to about 25, although they were spread across the church. This seemed fairly reasonable, as church attendance in Glastonbury is said to be generally low.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Yes, several. One friendly gentleman showed me to a pew, although I think he was a bit suspicious at first as to why a young newcomer had joined them. Newcomers in an Anglican church are often shunned, or "sent to Coventry" as they say. But he introduced me to an elderly lady who made me feel very welcome indeed. She told me that she was very ecumenical and attended the United Reformed church sometimes.

Was your pew comfortable?

A standard Victorian pew. I was asked to move to the front.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Most people were engaged in conversation. The organist didn't start playing until the service proper began.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

Creaso (welcome) in Welsh.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

We had a printed sheet with all the hymns on it.

What musical instruments were played?

A three manual organ which was fitting for the great Welsh hymns chosen.

Did anything distract you?

It seemed strange having a Welsh service in a Somerset church although the leader said that Glastonbury had Celtic links. The singing was very loud and seemed to fill the church, but this is typical for a gamanfa ganu. This could have been any Capel Cymraeg in Wales.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

As this was a Welsh service, there were some hymns which would have been suited more to the nonconformist tradition. We sang Ebenezer, which reminded me of the Presbyterian churches of Wales with their tunes in minor keys. We also sang "Who is on the Lord's side," "Alleluia sing to Jesus," "Love divine" and "Guide me O thou great Jehovah." It made me remember Lampeter and Llandovery, where I used to live, and the large nonconformist chapels with their hymns by Williams Pantycelyn, generally regarded as Wales' foremost hymnodist. Again, these seemed incongruous with the middle of the road Anglicanism of Somerset. We also sang Aberystwyth, which was ironic as I was due to stay in Aber a couple of weeks later!

Exactly how long was the sermon?

There was no sermon per se, but rather a short explanation of each hymn as well as some literary excerpts. About eight minutes altogether.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

10 – Both Richard and Ruth were quite good. They had grown up in Wales and could speak the language. Richard was very apologetic for his Welsh but he needn't have been!

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

It was a mixture of poems from the Book of Taliesin, named after the earliest poet of the Welsh language whose works have survived; readings from Under Milk Wood, the play by Dylan Thomas about the hopes and dreams of the villagers in a fictitious Welsh town; and explanations of the hymns.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The service had been a lovely experience and I would change nothing. The sound of the Welsh words of the hymns especially enthralled me. I was transported back to the Presbyterian church and Annibynwyr (independent) churches of Wales with their great Welsh singing tradition. It did seem strange, though, that this celebration was being held in an Anglican church, as the Church in Wales can't really compare musically to these nonconformist traditions. However, it is always good to see these hymns embraced!

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

The only thing I would have liked was to have actually been in Wales. And I was saddened to think that the empty pews and the elderly congregation with low numbers may forebode a grim future for this church. The diocese appears always quick to close a church if it can.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

No chance of that! The elderly lady kindly showed me over to the coffee. Also I was introduced to the organist and had a quick blast on the three manual organ.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Stimulating! I needed it after a long walk around the area earlier in the afternoon.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

10 – I like the way this church appears to embrace other traditions. They have regular songs of praise evenings that are themed. I also like the way that it appears to be a back street church.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

It certainly did. The church made me feel very welcome as a passing stranger, although I think it should have advertised that the service was going to be a Welsh hymn service. I had stumbled upon this service quite by chance and had hesitated before going in. However, since I used to live in Wales, I would have had no hesitation had I known beforehand that it was going to be in Welsh.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

I will remember those rousing hymns, especially "Guide me O thou great Jehovah."

Our Mystery Worshippers are volunteers who warm church pews for us around the world. If you’d like to become a Mystery Worshipper, start here.

Find out how to reproduce this report in your church magazine or website.

Comments and corrections

To comment, please scroll to the end of this report and add your thoughts there. To send us factual corrections, please contact us. We also discuss reports on our Ecclesiantics bulletin board.

© Ship of Fools