Bath Abbey

This town is appropriately named I guess; people come here for an ancient Roman bath experience. The population is a little under 100,000, but the baths attract over a million visitors each year. I asked if summer was busier than winter? but apparently not. The visitor number remain the same week to week.
According the Dr Google the first spas were populated some 20 years after Jesus died. And, since that time Bath has been a popular destination for people from around the world. Apart from service oriented industries, bath is really home to museums, cultural attractions and Jane Austen (who lived there in the 19th century).

There was a period piece costume event at the time. I thought Mr Darcy would appear at any moment. Followed up by Mr Collins.

The Abbey is not a Cathedral. But I wanted to see it’s ministry because it is such a significant feature of the area and has been working at it’s Gospel ministry alongside being a tourist attraction.

It was founded in the 7th century as home for Benedictine monks. In that sense it has similar roots to Southwark Cathedral. Norman conquerors destroyed it around 900 and in 1090 laid the foundations for a massive cathedral. By 14th century that plan was in ruins too. In the mid 16th century, Henry the VIII began the construction of the current Abbey, which was later renovated inside to conform to the Victorian Gothic vision of the day. It has pretty much remained the same to this day.
The Abbey is right next to the Roman Baths, and this simple geographic placement means over 500,000 people visit the Abbey each year – somewhere around 1400 visitors every day. But in most cases it’s not the tourists you might get in London. The vast majority do not travel to Bath to see the Abbey, rather it’s an attraction that just happens to be next to the main event. In that sense, many people who wander through the church door are not people of any particular faith persuasion, or interested in religion per se.

According the Rector, Edward Mason, there was a period of time not so long ago when the Abbey had little or no interest in the the huge population of visitors, often seeing them as an inconvenience. However that’s all changed. I didn’t get the sense that harnessing visitors was a way to make money, but rather to make sure that everyone who visited expeirenced the history of our faith, the story of the gospel and the ongoing work of God’s Spirit. Certainly among the staff and church leaders that I met, that was the intention. However, it comes with obvious challenges. In working to be welcoming there is an army of volunteers needing to be educated in the churches wider ministry and history,  alongside offering a warm welcome to all, and an encouragement to engage in the daily worship and prayer.

Like Wellington Cathedral, the Abbey is land locked. The main nave and Sanctuary were erected with little thought to ancillary buildings or ministry needs of the future. Subsequently, they have purchased a building alongside the Abbey for offices, education rooms and ongoing ministry programmes. To that end they are embarking on a 17 million pound adventure to gut the purchased building and go underground. Because the Abbey is a grade one listed heritage building, the external and internal appearance need to be preserved. Hence the ambitious underground project. Added to that they intend lifting the Abbey floor to install economic heating and to stabalise the current floor (apparently there are some 18,000 people buried under and around the building). Talk about seeking the living among the dead.

All these will need to be lifted and returned after the heating upgrade.

Unlike a number of churches I’ve come across, the Abbey has an obvious commitment to being a place of missionary faith and not simply a tourist attraction. The building plan is to make sure the Abbey is able to work for, and serve the local community over the next century. Again it has a similar feel to Southwark in that regard, though its a few years behind. Once you climb past the tourism, there is an ordinary community of people who live in Bath, many of whom are poor, isolated or simply in need of community and faith. It struck me that that the Abbey is in the throws of trying to develop a living faith that thrives and speaks within it’s commnity.

In talking to the interim music director I was surprised to hear that they have links with over a thousand school children through music and singing (each week I think) during the term. The music squad go out to the schools and likewise the kids come the church. It means the Abbey is at work among young people in ways most churches can’t be. The longterm impact of having that kind of relationship can’t be under estimated.

I attended all 5 services on Sunday, most of which mirror our own. An 8am said service (no music), choral eucharistic, choral Martin’s (service without communion) late morning, Evensong at 3.30 and contemporary service at 6.30pm. I was interested in two services in particular – choral Eucharistic in the morning and the contemporary/alternative service at night. The 8am crowd all head off to a Cafe after the service and kindly invited me along. One thing Bath has in common with NZ is a love of Rugby – and I heard all about it. It seems going out for coffee was more successful than  staying at the church.

Morning choral Eucharist is a family centred service, which feels quite different from ours. Much of the formal structure has been modified to suit a less formal generation. I spoke to a few of the parents after the service, some of whom have Holy Trinity Brompton in their background and would probably be more suited to the less restrained charismatic place down the road. What struck me was their decision to be where they were needed, which is a very HTB attitude. I don’t think they are there because it suits them necessarily, though it does work for them. However, these people had small children and the Abbey has a challenge of holding those kids as they grow up, in much the same way we do. I hope the Abbey respects that in their ongoing ministry planning.

While at the service I was aware of the musical tension between the need to preserve a formal choral eucharist alongside a more informal family accessible service. It doesn’t take a great deal of research to know that the currnet age range is not in the churches long term favour, but there are signs of hope. However, like NZ, for some of the people I met,  there is an underlying belief that as the next generation ages, they will come back – they won’t. In the UK the bubble of aging Christians is coming to an end too. There is no obvious coming generation to fill the gaps . Not in the way many hope for. So I hope the Abbey continues to develop that service by regularly dialogueing with the people they are most wanting to attract. It’s not an easy balancing act, but given the people they have on staff and in leadership, they are well poised to do so. It’s a common theme over here, one that we also need to address.

The evening service was actually really good. There is some concern that it hasn’t taken off, but I think that’s a confidence problem. The Abbey hardly has an issue with advertising, as people walk through the door all day. Doing something new, cititquing, changing and sustaining, takes a degree of confidence that it’s the right thing to do. The only issue I  noticed is that it wasn’t done as well as the other public services, so felt slightly stilted. The music was comparatively contemporary, it had good use of multimedia and the speaker was great. Sorting out a few simple issues and letting the context do the rest might insure a bit more confidence. From my point of view it was helpful to see an outrigger style of public ministry in an old context,  and I thought it worked well. Again it’s something we need to get underway back home.

It’s clear to me that the UK is about 20 years behind NZ in regard to secularisation and  church decline. The difference is that a growing number of churches are aware of this and are trying to adapt to the new era. But lots aren’t. The Abbey is obviously in the former category but it faces the same issues we all face: old stake holders vs an unpredictable and unknown future. It’s very easy to sit back and let it drift, but I was encouraged to see the need to embrace new patterns around old structures.

Embracing the past might tell us who we are, and it should be acknowledged – good and bad. But the past can’t tell us who we will become. That’s the role of prophets and leaders in each age. Looking back, the Abbeys history shows tumultuous periods of change that shaped the church in each era. I’m interested that in our time, Anglicans are often fearful of any change that might reshape our future. Ironically, if we want to preserve our history, then adapting to new realities is what has kept all church communities alive. However, for the first time in centuries that is now under threat. Not from outside, but within.
I had a great time at the Abbey and was pleased it was on my list of places to go. I came away reminded again that our past is a gift of wisdom, but it cannot define the path ahead. That’s the task of the current generation. I am also reminded that it takes courage to remember who we are by being who we need to be – you only have to look the pioneer Anglican missionaries who first came to NZ – it’s not for the feint of heart though.

Perhaps the most powerful motivator to taking risks and participating in what unfolds, is how the community responds to what it sees. Some of the local shop assistants I spoke to said that the Abbey was a really active place in the city and important to the community. No matter what your preference of worship style, those kinds of comment speak more loudly than a old building with a long history and ancient liturgy. I guess a church either it speaks, or it doesn’t. The Abbey obviously speaks. May it continue to find its voice.

Thanks to everyone who made me welcome. It’s given me more food for thought.


2 thoughts on “Bath Abbey

  1. I hope you might like to visit Salisbury Cathedral too. It’s a stunning, beautiful space with a wonderful history, but it is not stuck in history and has a really good, present flow to it. It has a very enlightened Arts Policy and frequently hosts wonderful installation art. Right now there is an installation on the theme of Light. Previous installation themes have included ‘Liminality’ which I personally found particularly inspiring. It has an 800 year legacy which flows through into the present day. The city was constructed around the needs of building this medieval cathedral. It has the highest medieval tower and you can do a ‘Tower Tour and climb to where the four sided structure gives way to the eight sided tower. You can see and hear the great bells and you can look up into the medieval internal wooden scaffolding within the tower. Yet the Cathedral has a modern East window in intense and beautiful Chatres blue, which is dedicated to Amnesty International and which includes and depicts images of prisoners of conscience. I believe that prayers are said each day for the present day prisoners of conscience. The Cathedral has a truly beautiful font which was an 800th birthday present to itself by a wonderful donation, which is a large cruciform of water, both reflectively still and flowingly moving at the same time, reflecting the amazing architecture, vaulted roof and ancient and modern windows in its still surface which spills out over the cruciform points as moving, living water. The Cathedral has a wonderful team of extremely knowledgeable volunteers who are completely adept at and sensitive to the difficult matter of genuinely welcoming visitors and tourists of ‘all faiths and none’ whilst holding the space for the acts of worship which punctuate any visit to this amazing space. Salisbury is at the juncture of 5 rivers and the Cathedral is built on water and grit. It has a strong past, and a flowing present. Please go and visit it if you can. If you have not made space for it this time, you will just have to come back! Best wishes, go well.

    Liked by 1 person

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