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The Experience of Worship


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The experience of worship in late medieval cathedral and parish church is an exciting and innovative ongoing major research project commissioned in 2009 by the joint AHRC/ESRC Religion and Society Research Programme. Full details of the project, audio-visual materials, images, reflections, and extensive commentary, may be found at the main project website,

The project, led by Professor John Harper (Principal Investigator) and Dr Sally Harper (Co-Investigator) of the School of Music, was funded by an AHRC/ESRC grant of £349,606. Its practice-led approach was inspired by one of the designated Religion and Society programme themes, focusing on texts, rituals, spaces and objects. It explores what the experience of late medieval worship was like for all who participated in it, and how we can connect our present experience of surviving medieval cathedrals and churches with the texts, artefacts and music that were once used with them.

Worship affected and involved every level of medieval society, yet we still know little about how exactly it was conducted and experienced by each of the distinct social groups engaged in it: clergy, assistants, musicians and lay people. So far as we can, we have to strip away post-medieval and post-Christian assumptions, and take account of the spirituality of the time – among the literate and non-literate, those who knew Latin and those who did not. What goes on in chancel and sanctuary is only one part of the experience, or rather of the ‘polyphony’ of experiences of medieval worship.

A key feature of the project has therefore been the preparation and enactment of a group of widely used late medieval liturgies, each enacted twice in two very different buildings: the great medieval cathedral at Salisbury, for which the liturgies were first intended, and a small rural parish church to which the liturgies were adapted – in this case St Teilo’s Church, now reconstructed as it was c.1520 in the grounds of St Fagan’s National History Museum, near Cardiff. The main sequence of enactments, which took place between May and October 2011, attempted to recreate the full sensory experience of medieval experience (including smell, sound and touch) and were attended by a fully briefed ‘medieval’ congregation and other observers. Further enactments also took place in Bangor Cathedral, St Davids Cathedral, and Christ Church Bronxville, New York, with a series of post-Reformation enactments from the Book of Common Prayer in St John’s Church, Washington, Connecticut in October 2013. Professional singers and a director were engaged to provide the integral chant and polyphonic elaboration where appropriate.

All of this has enabled us to discover much more about the reality of medieval worship through the interaction of text, ritual and space, and about the experience of all the participants (not merely clergy, ministers and musicians, but also the congregation). Selected participants at each ritual were asked to focus on specific aspects of the experience, and to record and analyse their reactions with the assistance of the project team and a specially appointed facilitator/psychologist.

The physical outcomes of the project have proved especially rich. The enactments themselves were informed by new editions of the chosen liturgies with text, music and full ‘performance scripts’ drawn from the medieval liturgical Use of Salisbury. These are available on-line and will also be published in conventional scholarly format with critical commentary. The enactments have also been recorded to the highest standards in audio-visual form and are publicly available via the main project website. A series of ritual objects essential to the conduct of the liturgy were also reconstructed, including flagons, bowls, pax-board and pyx, vestments, and linen, and a late medieval portable organ with painted oak case, designed and built by the firm of Goetze and Gwynn at a cost of almost £80,000, currently in Bangor Cathedral. In all respects this unique and vivid project combines high level scholarly research, interdisciplinary dialogue, and a whole range of innovative learning experiences for the general public.