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3081: Great Malvern Priory, Malvern, England
Greater Malvern Priory (Exterior)
Mystery Worshipper: Chris Church Crawler.
The church: Parish Church of St Mary and St Michael (Great Malvern Priory), Malvern, Worcestershire, England.
Denomination: Church of England, Diocese of Worcester.
The building: The priory was founded in 1085 for 30 monks on land belonging to Westminster Abbey. Only portions of the original work survive today; these include the misericords and some of the windows. Alterations were made in the period 1440-1500, and after the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII various parts were sold off and destroyed until the citizens of Malvern raised the handsome sum of 20 to convert the priory for use as their parish church. The building had fallen into disrepair by 1788 and was partially restored during the early 19th century. In 1860 Sir George Gilbert Scott began a careful restoration in the style of the medieval original. The exterior is Gothic and Perpendicular and is reminiscent of Gloucester and Worcester Cathedrals. The interior, however, is Norman. In addition to the misericords, which are in excellent shape, and the stained glass, which was removed for safekeeping during World War II and later reinstalled but nevertheless shows the ravages of time, the interior contains several interesting fixtures and monuments. In the St Anne chapel can be found the tomb of the astronomer and mathematician known as Walcher of Malvern, who served as prior from 1120 to 1135; learned in Arabic principles of astronomy and mathematics, Walcher was probably the first Westerner to use the astrolabe, an ancient instrument for solving problems relating to time and movement of the sun and stars, to observe celestial phenomena. The priory's website includes a thorough description of the building's history and appointments.
The church: The priory serves as a busy parish church. There are several groups and activities described on their website, including messy church, house groups, bell ringers, and groups for children and youth. They sponsor Lunch Box, a midday concert program to which the audience is encouraged to bring a box lunch. The gift shop sells books, cards and a variety of porcelain, glass and wood items. They support missions in Iraq, Egypt and Kenya. I got the impression that their churchmanship is at the lower end of the candle, although they maintain high choral standards and apparently even have a parish praise band! Their morning and evening Sunday services appear to alternate among morning prayer, holy communion and evensong, and something they call Altogether Worship. Their weekday service is morning prayer except for holy communion on Thursdays.
The neighbourhood: You can't miss the Malvern Hills! The hills, into which the town is built, can be seen for many miles. The composer Sir Edward Elgar lived here and took great inspiration from the hills. There is a very mid-Victorian feel about the town with its antique shops and Victorian style lampposts. There is a bus stop near the priory with three paintings of Elgar checking his watch, presumably waiting for the bus. Also a pub nearby where British author CS Lewis used to meet literary chums for a chat and walks.
The cast: Tony Walters, reader emeritus, preached. A female reader was not named on the service sheet.
The date & time: Sunday, 16 October 2016, 6.30pm.

What was the name of the service?

How full was the building?
I arrived early. At first there were only two in the nave. However, I was invited to move to the misericords in the choir, where 13 people eventually arrived. They were a mix of mainly elderly gentlemen – very well dressed and well spoken. There were two other visitors.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
A lady in the choir spotted me and said, "Hello. Did you want to stay for the service or are you just visiting?" When I replied with the former, she said, "Why don't you come sit in the choir if you'd like, then, where everyone else will be?"

Was your pew comfortable?
My chair in the nave was comfortable, and after I moved into the choir I found the misericords likewise very comfortable for a medieval piece or woodwork. They are carved with various figures, including one identified by guidebooks as a lion but looking more to me like a puppy!

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The nave was quite dusky; the misericords a bit more cheery. The choir had been rehearsing prior to the service. The organist began playing about 15 minutes before the start of the service. The organ music was beautiful and masterfully played but had a sort of creepy funereal sound to it.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good evening and welcome to Malvern Priory and a special welcome to any visitors."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
We used Hymns Ancient and Modern and a green order of service.

What musical instruments were played?
A large newly restored four manual tracker organ. The original instrument, installed in 1850 and enlarged in 1862, was an opus of Nicholson & Co of Malvern. The firm of Rushworth & Dreaper built a new instrument in 1927 that incorporated much of the Nicholson pipework; a major overhaul was done in 1977. Nicholson rebuilt the instrument in 2003-2004, preserving the tonality and appearance of the Rushworth & Dreaper instrument.

Greater Malvern Priory (organ)
Photo: Kudpung and used under license

Did anything distract you?
The little carved wooden "puppy" on the misericord arm. I kept looking at it throughout the service. I love animals and wondered whether the person who carved it 500 year or so ago had loved puppies too and had memorialised his pet puppy in wood. Certainly possible. Where did anyone get the notion that it was a lion?

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
I was initially curious prior to the service as the church appeared to have a low church/evangelical feel to it. However, this service was full Prayer Book choral evensong with an anthem by Purcell and a choir of about 40 people.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
15 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 – Of the old Anglican school but clear and engaging!

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The readings were Nehemiah 8:9-8 (the Feast of Booths described) and John 16:1-11 (believers will be persecuted, but the Holy Spirit will come). Being a Christian today is, he said, "no picnic." The world has a view of Christianity as being stuffy, particularly worship. "Not here, however," he said (and I agreed). The Holy Spirit is the Paraclete (not the "parakeet" [laughter]), the helper, the counsellor. The Paraclete is what a little girl once described as being "that other part of Jesus."

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The music was lovely. The Purcell anthem and the singing from the 40 strong choir was great. Also, sitting in the misericord with the little carved wooden dog, I felt a link to the past.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The lack of after-service welcome – see later.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Not a lot! We all waited in the stalls for the organ postlude to finish before descending into the nave and out. There was a small group of the 13 congregants chatting amongst themselves with no attempt to say hello to me or the other two visitors. There was a brief and quiet "Good night" at the door from the officiant but no conversation. A pity, as I had driven 40 miles to be here and was going out into the cold. Whilst I wasn't expecting a group hug, the "welcome" very evident in the notices and leaflets wasn't lived out.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
None offered but not expected. I walked up the steps away from the floodlit priory to the road above, with the tower floodlit and the moon just to the right of it. Magical!

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – I enjoyed the traditional worship and music but, sadly, missed a sense of welcome. It's great to welcome people during the notices and on the paperwork; but in the end – you have to live it and talk to people too! I wasn't expecting a group Jesus Hug, but a "Where are you from?" would have been nice to set me on my 40 miles journey!

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, but a lonely one!

Greater Malvern Priory (Misericord)

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The carved medieval "puppy" on the misericord.
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