St Edmundsbury Cathedral, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, England

St Edmundsbury Cathedral, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, England


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Mystery Worshipper: Cornerstone
Church: St Edmundsbury Cathedral
Location: Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, England
Date of visit: Saturday, 16 October 2010, 2:30pm

The building

The Cathedral Church of St James and St Edmund is Gothic, dating from the 1400s, erected on the foundations of an earlier church. It has been extensively modified and renovated over the centuries. The present chancel was designed in 1955 by Stephen Dykes Bower, known also for his work on Westminster Abbey. There is a 21st century crossing tower, built to celebrate the millennium, that pleasantly dominates the view from every direction.

The church

The cathedral church of the diocese of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich. A large number of events and activities are documented on their website, including concerts and a film society.

The neighborhood

A settlement has existed here since Roman times. The name Bury St Edmunds is thought by some to refer to the tomb and shrine of King Edmund, who (the story goes) in 869 was scourged, shot through with arrows, and finally beheaded by invading Danes for his refusal to renounce Christ. Others regard "bury" as a cognate of the Old Norse borg, meaning castle. Through the ages the town saw much conflict between ecclesiastical and temporal authorites, and it was known as a locus of Puritan sentiment during the 1600s. The Bury St Edmunds witch trials of the 17th century, which served as inspiration (if that's the right word) for the Salem witch trials in the American colonies, saw hundreds of old women hanged for offences ranging from sending toads to deprive neighbours of sleep to causing "organic problems" in young girls. Today's Bury St Edmunds is a quieter place. Centrally located to the east of the town, the cathedral was originally part of the medieval abbey, the ruin of whose front has now been converted into upmarket houses. The cathedral now shares a churchyard with the evangelical church next door.

The cast

The Rt Revd Nigel Stock, Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich; the Revd Canon Michael Hans Joachim Hampel, sub-dean and precentor; the Revd Canon Frances Ward, soon to be made dean.

What was the name of the service?

Installation of the Revd Canon Dr Frances Ward as Dean of St Edmundsbury and Induction as Vicar of the Parish of St James and St Edmund.

How full was the building?

Full to bursting, probably over 1000. A mix of parishioners and waifs and strays from other surrounding parishes wanting to be anonymous worshippers.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Yes – two stewards with nice smiles. One handed me an order of service.

Was your pew comfortable?

Reasonably comfortable, though the church kneelers got in the way a bit.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Tense and excited. Fairly quiet. No crying babies – in fact very few under 16 present at all.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

After the choir had sung an introit and the precentor had chanted some obscure sentences, somebody at the back of the church said: "People of the cathedral church of St James and St Edmund, I present to you the Revd Canon Dr Frances Ward, canon residentiary and theologian of the cathedral church of St Peter, Bradford."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

A service book with everything in it.

What musical instruments were played?

An electronic organ and trumpets.

Did anything distract you?

The pagentry, with loads of mayors with their chains of office, and the judges wearing wigs that didn't seem to fit their heads, and made one of them in particular look very hot and sweaty.

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

Solid Anglican authoritative worship with all the formal bits required by law, and a few nice touches, like the procession of things given to the Dean as a badge of her office: wine, towels, bread, Book of Common Prayer, Common Worship - and a map of the county!

Exactly how long was the sermon?

18 minutes.

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

9 – Dean Ward gave a very well crafted reflection on the role of Anglicanism in society, peppered with irony and theological quips.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

What is the Church of England here for? First: To encourage people to regain the habit of going to church (consider children who will only clean their teeth if you tell them to). Second: We are good at remembering past mercies, demonstrating beauty in built fabric. Third: Reminding people that we are the body of Christ, and individualism has no place in society. And fourth: The human spirit is much more than targets and goals, and needs to involve spirituality. We have the confidence to be bold in God's grace, so stop being disparaging about the Church, which is the means of God's grace to us!

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The choir singing.

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

The unholy scrum afterwards for tea and biscuits, which had all but gone by the time us mere mortals had got to it, the procession of visiting clergy and choir having got there first and gobbled them all up!

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

A couple of people who thought they knew me (but didn't) came up and encouraged me to have tea in the tent outside.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Non-existent. The tea was cold and stewed.

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

8 - Though cathedral life is very different from rural life, so I can see pros and cons.

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 sermon.

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