The Cathedral Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Lincoln is a masterpiece of Decorated Gothic built on a Norman base. Originally consecrated in 1124, the first building was badly damaged in 1185 by an earthquake, one of the strongest ever felt in the British Isles. St Hugh is venerated as the one who supervised its rebuilding, although Hugh lived only to see the choir and one of the transepts completed. The Angel Choir is a direct line, through St Hugh, to heaven. St Hugh and his swan are commemorated in stone, wood, willow – you name it. The Wren Library, which houses a collection of rare manuscripts, is a bonus.
Legend has it that when Hugh, who loved birds and indeed all of nature’s creatures, was enthroned as bishop in 1186, a swan appeared on a nearby lake and, although of fierce temperament, allowed itself to be captured. The swan developed a fondness for Hugh, eating bread from his hand, guarding him while he slept, and menacing other animals (and people) it perceived to be a threat to Hugh. When Hugh was away, the swan would somehow sense his return days in advance. The swan also sensed Hugh’s impending death months before he fell ill, and after Hugh died the swan never befriended another human. Today, Lincoln Cathedral involves itself in numerous community activities all well documented on their website. A new visitor centre is currently under construction. I was visiting as a tourist, and Lincoln caters well for us. There was a lecture (with screens) in the nave the night I was there.
The old city of Lincoln survives in mutilated form because much of it is too steep for cars. Builders in hard hats are everywhere. Life goes on at the bottom of the hill in huge shopping malls and suburban housing.
Traditional Prayer Book evensong led by a priest, but the choir were central.
What was the name of the service?Choral Evensong.
How full was the building?
It was in the choir, which was almost empty. A choir of 14 were slightly outnumbered by the elderly congregation.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
No. But I was there all the time.
Was your pew comfortable?
Very. Medieval wooden stall complete with misericord.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The cathedral going about its everyday business. The verger did say he was clearing the choir for the service, but I didn't feel that hordes of people were excluded.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
‘O Lord, open thou our lips.’
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Service sheet. Also present were the Book Of Common Prayer, New English Hymnal, and The Holy Bible, New International Version.
What musical instruments were played?
Did anything distract you?
Spot lighting, straight in the eye.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Completely traditional. The choir sang very well, beautifully directed. The psalm was chanted, unaccompanied and memorably sung by all, particularly the soloist.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
No sermon at evensong, but I had also attended an earlier eucharist where the priest spoke for several minutes with extreme passion about the latest outrage committed by a certain head of state across the ocean. His righteous indignation filled St Hugh's Chapel. He was vibrating with genuine fury.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The chanted psalm.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The spotlight on YOU, just when you want to sink into the shadows.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I spent some time admiring the sculptures. I'm sure the clergy would have been glad to talk to me if I had wanted it, but after evensong is not the time.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
10 — I need to see more of Lincoln. The architectural historian Alec Clifton-Taylor famously said that however long you spend in the Angel Choir, it is not long enough.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Very glad that all this still goes on in this setting.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The chanting of the psalm.