Ripon Cathedral, Ripon, Yorkshire, England


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Mystery Worshipper: Salskov
Church: Ripon Cathedral
Location: Ripon, Yorkshire, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 25 October 2009, 9:30am

The building

On this site in the 7th century St Wilfrid built one of England's first stone churches, of which the crypt is the only surviving remnant. Altogether there have been four churches here, the present structure displaying architectural features from across the range of the medieval period. The rebuilding programme necessitated by a structural collapse in 1450 was interrupted by the Reformation, leaving the church with a combination of earlier rounded arches and rebuilt Gothic pointed arches and columns. The church houses many items of historical and artistic interest, from the choir stalls completed in 1494 by Ripon woodcarvers, to the Art Nouveau pulpit and an array of memorial tablets covering more than 700 years of local history. It is believed that a carving on one of the misericords, depicting a griffon chasing a rabbit down a rabbit hole, may have inspired Lewis Carroll when he wrote Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Carroll's father was a canon at the cathedral from 1852 to 1868.

The church

The Cathedral Church of St Wilfrid and St Peter, Ripon, is a parish church as well as a cathedral. It works with the community and plays host to a variety of artistic events, from the calligraphy exhibition currently on view, to concerts, jazz eucharists and charity fairs. Fair trade is in evidence, though I didn't spot it in the coffee provision after the service.

The neighborhood

Ripon is a market town with a thriving local economy. The Thursday market attracts visitors from a wide surrounding area. There is still a wakeman, who sounds a horn every evening at 9.00 in the market square to show that all is well.

The cast

The Venerable Janet Henderson, member of the cathedral clergy and Archdeacon of Richmond, presided and preached. She was supported by two unnamed clergy.

What was the name of the service?

Sung Eucharist with the Boy Choristers and Lay Clerks.

How full was the building?

This is a small cathedral; I would guess that the normal pew provision would seat 200, and maybe 350 could be fitted in for large concerts. I estimated there to be about 150 people present, so it was pretty full.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

I arrived half an hour early, hoping to take some photos. The gentlemen handing out hymn books, service sheets and booklets said hello. I asked about taking photos, and was told I would need a permit, but to go ahead and they would organise it. They asked if I was staying for the service. People around me shook hands willingly at the peace, but there was no hello or questioning.

Was your pew comfortable?

There is new seating of wooden framed, rush bottomed interlocking chairs. These were generously proportioned and comfortable. They had shelves beneath the seats to accommodate kneeling pads.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

The cathedral was quite echoey, and there were people praying, but others chatting, and some quite loud commentaries coming from the direction of the calligraphy exhibition. I had time to look round, and was charmed to see exhibits of quotations, including Muhammad Ali's famous quote from his book The Soul of a Butterfly: Reflections on Life's Journey: "It's just a job. Grass grows, birds fly, waves pound the sand. I beat people up." This in addition to the usual biblical quotes and statements about peace. The cathedral has recently had new lighting installed, and on a dull rainy day, with the usual wind whipping round the church door, the atmosphere inside was light and bright. I thought at first it was natural sunlight, until I realised that it couldn't be! One of the clergy tried to give out announcements over the sound of the bells, with limited audibility.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Good morning, and welcome to the cathedral today."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Service book, with alternative texts and Latin for the mass sections. Congregational responses were musically notated. There was also a service sheet with the readings of the day, and the New English Hymnal.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ. I was told afterwards that the instrument is in need of attention, and this will be the subject of the next appeal. The choir of men and boy was good, with the treble voices extremely good.

Did anything distract you?

Thirty-five years ago I attended a performance of Handel's Israel in Egypt here. It was cold, even on a summer evening. On a rainy October Sunday it was still cold! There is a considerable draught at floor level, and the stone flags exude chill. Compared to my last visit, I noticed that the altar and choir seating had been brought forward of the crossing, and slightly raised. This left the boys rather exposed to public view. As a professional chorister, I don't like being on view to quite this extent, and it was obviously hard for the boys to remain entirely decorous. One was seen to hoist his foot so that he could scratch his ankle. I'm not sure he didn't also use the hem of his cassock to polish his shoe.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

This was the fully robed version, clergy in triplicate, dalmatics, candles, and offstage chanting before and after the service. Very well done, and like all well rehearsed liturgy, accessible.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

7 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

7 – Archdeacon Henderson spoke clearly, making allowance for the resonance of the building, as indeed everyone did. But she looked alternately at her script and at the congregation, giving a bobbing effect that slightly detracted from the effect of a good sermon. The bells striking ten o'clock part way through the sermon didn't help.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The archdeacon spoke on the gospel reading for the day, Mark 10:46-52 (Jesus restores sight to blind Bartemaeus). She told the story of Anne Ayscough (1521-1546), the only woman ever to be tortured on the rack in the Tower of London, where she was put on trial for preaching and distributing Protestant books. Each of us should engage with the word of God, and each in his own way try to interpret the truth. As an extension of vision, if we bring our concerns to God, we will see our true desires more clearly. Ideally, we should, like Bartemaeus, move from need to gratitude to loyalty.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

This is a lovely church, and being able to see clearly (a tribute to the lighting rather than the sermon) really enhanced the enjoyment of being there. The music was the real thing: a great Byrd motet and a really gorgeous sound from those boys. Three out of four hymns were well known to me.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

The cold rising up through my feet! Also, whenever I see a New English Hymnal, I know that the melodies will probably be too high for me, though not for the boys, and I descend to harmony. One of the hymns was completely unknown to me and, I suspect, to the congregation, and the melody didn't come over at all clearly from the organ. This is where the over-resonance of the acoustic was a disadvantage.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

Other members of the congregation didn't speak to me, but the kindly sidesman who had offered to get me the permit for photography approached and said that he had let me off since I stayed for the service! So I took a few more photos of the altar screen. I followed the crowd to the side chapel, where coffee, tea, juice and biscuits were being served. I caught the eye of one member of the clergy, who said hello and moved on hurriedly. Then I approached a gentleman with a white stick, who told me he used to be a sidesman before he lost his sight. He told me about the old appeal for the lighting, and the proposed new appeal for the organ upgrade. I then asked another of the clergy about his dalmatic, and he reassured me that that was the right term. Anyone I approached responded willingly (except for the clergyman in a hurry), but only the sidesmen made an overture.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Disposable cups of tea, coffee or squash. Biscuits. No idea if it was fair trade or not, but there were fair trade cards on sale, so I should imagine it was.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

8 – This comes across as a parish community, and very attractive. It would be hard, though, to face a future of non-stop harmony because the hymns are pitched so high.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?


What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

The wonderful treble voices in such a vibrantly lit church interior.

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