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A visitor’s report

April 22, 2010

On his blog, travelling-man Rick Steves writes about a Sunday morning visit to Bath Abbey. His outsider’s comments say much about the power and relevance of good liturgy and quality worship. They also say a lot about Mattins, since he doesn’t write about the logistical nightmare of distributing communion in a huge building with lots of visitors.

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Anglican Ritual, Snuff, and Meat Loaf in Bath

Shaking off my umbrella, I stepped into my room exhausted after a long day in Bath, England. Blowing my nose, I noticed a spray of red dirt on the Kleenex…and I remembered the snuff.

Paul, who runs the Star Inn — the most characteristic pub in town — keeps a tin of complementary snuff tobacco on a ledge for customers. I tried some, and — while a drunk guy from Wales tried to squeeze by me holding two big pints of the local brew over my head — I asked Paul about it. He said English coal miners have long used it because cigarettes were too dangerous in the mines, and they needed their tobacco fix. Paul wanted me to take the tin. I put it back on the ledge and said I’d enjoy it the next time I stopped by.

Walking home through the English mist, I reviewed my day backwards. I was pleased that even by just researching B&Bs, restaurants, and pubs in one of the most cutesy and touristy towns in Britain, my day was filled with memories.

School’s out and, while I’m heading home, the streets are filled with young kids partying. English girls out clubbing wiggle down the street like the fanciest of fish lures — each shaking their tassels and shimmying in a way sure to catch a big one. As one passed me, eyeing a gaggle of guys smoking outside a pub, I overheard her saying, “No spray, no lay…no cologne, you go home alone.”

The rock star Meat Loaf was playing a big concert in the park, and during his performance, much of Bath rocked with him. While the concert was sold out, I gathered with a hundred freeloaders craning their necks from across the river for a great view of the stage action.

The musical highlight of my day, however, was a worship service at the Bath Abbey. Earlier I had logged onto www.bathabbey.org, and — bam! — the day’s schedule was right there: Sung matins service at 11:00, visitors welcome.

I’ve noticed that any on-the-ball B&B or guesthouse these days provides free Wi-Fi for guests, and more and more travelers are carrying laptops or handheld computers to get online. I need to be better about using the Internet — it’s how today’s travelers book and buy things like train tickets while on the road.

The Anglican service was crisp, eloquent, and traditional. I was struck by the strong affirmation of their Catholic heritage, the calls for sobriety, and the stress on repentance (repeated references to how we are such wretched sinners). “Knife violence” (by gangs in the streets), which has replaced fear of terrorism as the main threat to communities in England, was a subject of prayers.

The Anglican worship ritual is carefully shuttled from one generation to the next. That continuity seemed to be underlined by the countless tombs and memorials lining walls and floors — worn smooth and shiny by the feet of centuries of worshippers. With the living and the dead all present together, the congregation seemed to raise their heads in praise as sunlight streamed through windows. (Bath’s particularly bright church is nicknamed “the Lantern of the West” for its open, airy lightness and huge windows.)

Glowing Bath stone columns sprouted honey-colored fan vaulting fingers, and cherubic boys in white robes and ruffs (old-time ruffled collars) filled the nave with song — making it a ship of praise. The church was packed with townsfolk, proper and still. Sitting among them, I was no longer a tourist. The scene felt timeless. I gazed at the same windows for the same inspiration that peasants sitting on these pews centuries ago sought.

The sermon was about Christian servanthood. The pastor’s stern comment about the USA took me by surprise: “If, after 9/11, that great Christian nation, the USA, took its responsibility to be a servant among nations seriously, how different our world would be today.” When he was finished and the offering plate was passed, his gentility also caught me off guard: “If you’re a visitor, please don’t be embarrassed to let the plate pass. It’s a way for our regular members to support our work here at the Bath Abbey.”

After the choir paraded out, the huge central doors — doors I didn’t even realize existed — were opened. Indoors and outdoors mingled, as the congregation spilled out onto the main square.

Bath is an expensive town in an expensive country. A young couple hired to manage an elegant Georgian guesthouse I recommend told me they took the gig just to live in Bath. (“Work-a-day English can’t really afford to live here.”) They have an apartment in the basement, but enter through the grand front door just to marvel at the elegant building they live in and manage.

I started my day joining a gaggle of curious visitors in front of the Abbey, where five of a club of 60 volunteer guides divided up the gang and proceeded to take them on a free town walk. My guide, a retired schoolteacher, explained that in 1930 the town’s mayor — proud of the charms of his historic town — took the first group gathered here on a free town walk…and “the mayor’s honorary corps of volunteers” has been leading free walks daily ever since.

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