Saturday, 9 August 2008

St. Wulfstan of Worcester.

I spent what spare time I had over the last week at the Three Choirs Festival which this year was held in Worcester. The festival was already being organised in 1719 by the choir masters of the three great cathedrals of this part of the west of England and takes place yearly, alternating between them: Gloucester, Worcester and Hereford. There is a tremendous sense of history, so many great English pieces of music were composed especially for the festival, incl. in 1899 The Dream of Gerontius by Elgar, and in 1905 The Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, by R. Vaughan Williams. Most of the concerts take place in the cathedrals, which for the week have all their pews replaced by special seating, some of it raked, and usually more comfortable than the pews. There is a Festival Club in a huge marquee on the Cathedral Close, with bars and food and a few other enterprises incl. a really excellent second hand music book and CD shop. ( I ended up buying several CDs incl. Byrd Masses, John Dunstable, Hildergard of Bingen, and more. I was very tempted by a lovely 1929 Roman Catholic Altar Missal of the Mass for the Dead, beautifully produced and preserved. It was rather sad to see it sitting on a bookshelf unrecognised by most of those browsing. I could have put it aside for use at my own funeral, I suppose.) Not alone are there approx. 4 or 5 concerts a day but the music provided at cathedral services is particularly fine, with visiting groups and sometimes all three cathedral choirs providing the music. While I will not attend a non Catholic communion service I have no difficulty attending such a service as Evensong, which can be very beautiful. Evensong is a conflation of the Catholic services of vespers and compline; thus it has the recitation of one or more psalms and the singing of the Magnificat as has Roman Catholic Vespers but it also has the Nunc Dimittis, which for us belongs to Compline.

However on one evening Evensong was replaced by the singing of Vespers using the Worcester Antiphonal which dates from the C13th. The vespers were in commemoration of St. Wulfstan. Each of the psalms had a special antiphon recounting the life of Wulfstan and even a hymn specific to Worcester and the Saint. The whole thing was sung in Gregorian chant and very finely by a group called Opus Anglicanum.

I knew little about Wulfstan until a dear Anglican friend explained.

St Wulfstan was the third abbot of Worcester and the second to bear the name Wulfstan. He was born in 1008A.D. and was the nephew of Wulfstan who was archbishop of York. It appears his family were impoverished by the arrival of the Normans, but that he found nonetheless a common ground with them. Having studied at various monasteries he was ordained in 1038, and very quickly rose through the priory attached to the cathedral at Worcester to become Bishop. With the coming of the Normans, Wulfstan was the only Anglo-Saxon bishop who was not required to relinquish his seat. He was a great builder and organiser, whose prime interest was always the pastoral care of the people and the growth of the church. He was known on occasion to argue the just cause of the Anglo-Saxons against the presumption of the Normans. He is credited with the rebuilding of not just Worcester Cathedral but Great Malvern Priory, among many others. He seems to have balanced the building culture of the Normans, who saw the Church of God as a network of great and majestic Cathedrals, priories and churches, with the more mystical, less materialistic vision of the church which prevailed under the Anglo-Saxons. He died in 1087 and was canonised in 1203 and his grave became a place of pilgrimage until it was plundered and desecrated at the reformation.

While the vespers were sung in Gregorian Chant and were very beautiful, it must be said that it did fall short of our vespers, ( done at their best), in having no "action" at the altar and being essentially a "Choir service".

On the 14th. September, ( an easy date to remember!), there will once again be Vespers of St. Wulfstan sung in Worcester Cathedral at 4.00p.m. and the preacher will be the Most Reverend Vincent Nicholls Archbishop of Birmingham. It is part of an afternoon of commemorative activities which do sound a bit " happy-clappy, ( eg. street theatre, etc.,), but the service itself is bound to be very dignified as usual in an Anglican Cathedral and a special welcome is extended to Catholics for the occasion.

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