There were no fanfares, no trumpeters in Shrewsbury last Sunday, no cries of Vivat Regina, but the organ was in good form, and it’s a good organ, and the choir had plainly been practiced to within an inch of its life. The occasion was the Service of Thanksgiving to celebrate the 60th Anniversary of the Coronation of the Queen, and the venue was that ex-wooden small Saxon church later upgraded by Roger de Montgomery in order to be buried in it. In fact his tomb, covered with a twelfth-century stone carving, is still on show today.
I’m talking about Shrewsbury Abbey, which is an imposing building by anybody’s standards, yet today is only a small reminder of a grander past as part of a Benedictine monastery that extended across, and had jurisdiction over, great swathes of the area now known as Abbey Foregate. Tolls were levied on traders. The Abbot served on embassies, inspected the local militia, guarded hostages, acted as a Justice of the Peace and sat in Parliament.
The glory days were over, however, by 1539. That’s when, as part of Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, the Abbot was obliged to surrender the Abbey, after which much of the monastic building was either demolished or sold off. All that was left of the Abbey was the church, and that’s where the great and good of Shropshire [and others, including me] congregated last Sunday to say prayers for that person referred to in the order of service as ‘Our Sovereign Lady, Queen Elizabeth’, thanking God for her long reign.
I remember watching the Coronation of Elizabeth II from underneath a table in a relative’s house, where I’d been sent because my mother had had a new baby and couldn’t handle me too. Like many others, I was seeing telly for the first time. Now all I have of that occasion are distant memories from a bygone age when I thought that queens wore crowns and jewels and glittering robes and were impossibly glamorous every single day.
The service last Sunday in Shrewsbury Abbey began with the Vicar’s Welcome, Reverend Paul Firmin reminding us of how long Shrewsbury Abbey had been home to a worshipping Christian community, and that it was a place where the mission of the church to proclaim God’s love was central. Then there was the processional hymn, which brought choir and clergy through the church, up the central aisle and to their appointed places arrayed on either side of the altar. ‘Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of creation,’ we all sang, using words translated by Catherine Winkworth from the famous German hymn, [Lobe den Herren, den machtigen Konig der Ehren’, if you’re interested], written by the Calvinist reformer Joachim Neander - who, incidentally, died of TB at the age of thirty, leaving behind a legacy of over sixty hymns.
At the end of the hymn, the vicar said a Bidding Prayer. Plainly this was to be a service full of ancient liturgy. Forms of bidding prayers change, but their main purpose is to tell the congregation what it needs to pray for. In this case, it was the Queen. After this prayer came the Lord’s Prayer, and after that a hymn taken from the Coronation itself - a lesser-known hymn [at least to me and, I’m guessing, a fair cross-section of the congregation], vastly helped along by the choir being in full voice.
Following this came the main body of the liturgy sung for us by the choir. The rest of us variously sat or stood whilst they worked their way through Preces [short petititons sung as versicles] and Responses, the whole of Psalm 122, the Te Deum Laudamus [‘Thee, O God, We Praise’] and the Jubilate Deo [which on Google I found described as being akin to ‘Snoopy’s happy dance’ but you could have fooled me].
In between, we had readings by Councillor Pate, Chairman of Shropshire Council, and Councillor Murray, MBE, Mayor of Telford and Wrekin, extolling us to ‘submit ourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake,’ [according to the Apostle Peter], and ‘Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s,’ [according to Jesus Christ]. There was an opportunity for the full congregation to say out loud the Apostles’ Creed [‘I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth’]. Then the choir was off again. Suffrages were sung [prayers offered for the repose of the souls of the faithful departed, in this case the Queen], Collects [other prayers] and the Choir Anthem, which was surprisingly short.
This was followed by further prayers of thanksgiving, the hymn ‘I Vow To Thee My Country’ [by Cecil Spring-Rice, British ambassador to the US in 1912, a career diplomat who wrote hymns on the side] and a Sermon by the Bishop of Ludlow, the Right Reverend Alistair Magowan.
When the Queen had entered Westminster Abbey, he said, on that Coronation Day sixty years ago, she’d not only been equipped for the occasion in a Norman Hartnell frock, but equipped heart and soul for a life of worship of God and service to others. Church and State were brought together in her Coronation Oath. Her taking Communion upon that occasion had been an expression of her need of God’s grace to guide her. Since then she had done her duty, exercising her services as Queen joyfully. Not only that, but her Christian service was a matter of public record.
Even before she became Queen, speaking for her father as well as herself, the Queen had said, ‘I can truly say that the King and I long to see the Bible where it should be, providing comfort to the nation. From my I own experience I know what it can be in a personal life.’ Indeed, ‘Here is the most valuable thing the world affords,’ were the words pronounced upon handing the Queen the Bible in the Coronation ceremony. It was a book that gave freedom and a way of life that all could follow. Again it was a matter of rendering under Caesar the things of Caesar’s, and unto God the things of God.
The final hymn was what’s sometimes known as the ‘Old One Hundred’ – ‘All People That on Earth Do Dwell, Sing to the Lord with Cheerful Voice’. It was followed by a special prayer celebrating the Anniversary of the Coronation, read by the Lord-Lieutenant of Shropshire, Algernon Heber-Percy, a Blessing by the Bishop of Shrewsbury and the National Anthem. The vicar dismissed us with the words, ‘With the risen life of Christ within you, go in the peace of Christ. Alleluia, alleluia,’ to which we all replied, ‘Thanks be to God.’
A procession removed choir and clergy from their seats in the Abbey, followed by the great and good of Shropshire in some form of order of seniority, complete with medals and chains. A photograph of the Queen [in a sort of salmony-red outfit] on the occasion of the Shropshire Diamond Jubilee Pageant graced the back page of the order of service. It was nice to see her smiling.
Over the year, it’s My Tonight From Shrewsbury’s intention to get behind all the huge church doors in Shrewsbury’s town centre. Last Sunday it visited Shrewsbury Abbey, maybe not for a typical Sunday service, but at least providing a flavour of the place with its mix of the ecclesiastical and its attempt to be welcoming and down-to-earth. There’s been a church on this site since Saxon times – which, when you think about it, were nearer to Gospel times than they are to us today. That is just so long ago. What changes Shrewsbury Abbey must have seen.
These days the Abbey is having what it’s calling a Renaissance, including a series of renovations and improvements, the refurbishment of the organ and the development of choral training. It draws more than 30,000 visitors a year, bringing in around £3 million to the local economy, and is an important part of Shrewsbury’s life - not least for its fame, courtesy of Ellis Peters, as the setting of her Brother Cadfael books.
However, for all the tourists who come in, and whatever civic and ceremonial role it sometimes fulfills, the Abbey sees its primary function as a parish church to the communities of Monkmoor, Crowmoor, Underdale, Cherry Orchard, Telford Estate and Abbey Foregate. According to its Vicar, Paul Firmin, it’s people, not stones, that it cares about most.