Mystery Worshipper: Deputy Verger
Church: Truro Cathedral
Location: Truro, Cornwall, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 10 October 2010, 10:00am
The Cathedral Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Truro, is the Gothic revivalist architect John Loughborough Pearson's masterpiece. Truro Cathedral is all about height and majesty and vaulted ceilings and perpendicular windows. The Victorian cathedral contains within its walls part of a Tudor church. The cathedral is visible from a distance, towering over the city with its three spires, the tallest of which is currently covered in scaffolding while a fundraising drive is underway. The cathedral noticeably curves by six feet to the north, which was done to accommodate existing neighbours and the shape of the street on the south side. There is a large and fine collection of stained glass, mostly by the highly regarded English workshop of Clayton and Bell, including three rose windows. There are three organs, including one built for this space in 1887 by the Liverpool firm of Henry Willis & Sons (whose principal, often fondly called Father Willis, was a friend of Samuel Wesley). People who know about such things say that the Father Willis organ is the best in the land and acoustically perfect. The ring of eight bells is about to be augmented to become the only 12-bell tower in Cornwall.
There is a very strong sense of Cornish identity meaning Celtic. The Cornish saints feature in the cathedral's architecture and worship. Music holds a very high priority in the life of the cathedral, given the fantastic organ and a highly acclaimed choir of men and boys. In fact, the service of Nine Lessons and Carols had its genesis here in 1880 under the first bishop of Truro, Edward Benson. The cathedral has a Mothers' Union group, a Friends group, young people's ministry, lots of artsy and cultural things going on, a shop, a restaurant, and armies of volunteers giving tours. I am sure there is much more that I didn't pick up on. There are at least three services a day. Sundays begin with morning prayer at 7.30am, followed by holy communion at 8.00am, a sung eucharist at 10.00am, and evensong at 4.00pm.
Truro, the most southerly city in England, is an historic market town dating from Norman times and is the administrative centre for Cornwall. It has a population of around 20,000. Cornwall sees hundreds of thousands of tourists in the summer and slims down to a core community in the colder months. The cathedral sits at the heart of it, right in the middle of town, surrounded by shops and restaurants, but is less than a half-hour drive from the surfing beaches of Newquay.
The Revd Canon Perran Gay, precentor, presided, flanked by two assistants, one of whom was the Revd Philip Lambert, canon missioner, and the other I presume a curate or deacon but I dont know his name. The Scottish composer James MacMillan, a lay Dominican, preached, and his music was used in the service. The director of music, Christopher Gray, conducted the choir and the assistant director, Luke Bond, played the organ.
What was the name of the service?Sung Eucharist.
How full was the building?
Pretty full. There were a few empty seats, but I would guess there must have been close to 400 people in the nave. I saw no babies or children at all except the choirboys, and I didn't see them until later.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes, there were greeters in the porch and more inside the nave, ensuring that everyone had the hymn book and service sheet.
Was your pew comfortable?
They were those old wooden church chairs with the book pocket. Fine, given the sit-stand-kneel nature of the eucharistic service.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
When I arrived a few minutes before ten o'clock, the place was already fairly full. People were talking quietly or praying or finding a seat.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
As I approached the cathedral I could hear the bells ringing, and they sounded lovely. I took a seat, didn't like it, and moved to another. The bells stopped. There was a silent pause. The clock struck ten. There was another silent pause. And then the voice of an angel launched into the introit from somewhere off in the south side, out of sight. It was James MacMillan's Christus Vincit and it was incredible. Then the choir and clergy processed into position. It is possible that the first words actually spoken were to announce the first hymn, but I am afraid that by that time I was so enthralled I had forgotten my mission.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The New English Hymnal and a printed service sheet.
What musical instruments were played?
The wonderful Father Willis organ.
Did anything distract you?
During communion people returned to their seats and most waited quietly, praying or whatever. But there was a little gaggle of gossiping women just in front of me who were quite irritating. Fortunately, when the priests came down to give communion to a few people who had not been able to make their way to the altar, they fell silent, but they had rather broken the spell of the service.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Medium-high. The clergy were vested in seasonal green. There was a proper Sanctus bell that the deacon rang at the elevation of the elements. There was no incense. The congregation sang the hymns enthusiastically and well, and maintained respectful silence for the prayerful and choral parts of the service (except for the distracting gossips after communion). The eucharist was celebrated at the high altar, which appears to be the only altar. It has been pulled away from the east wall, so Canon Gay got behind it and faced the people.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 – James Macmillan is a Roman Catholic, a lay Dominican, a musician and composer of note, not a preacher by trade, but he spoke very well and he was talking about the subject that is his passion. It was a privilege to hear him (and his music!). He had been there to deliver a lecture the previous evening, but sadly I didn't know that. He had, incidentally, composed some of the music used at services during the recent papal visit.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The gospel reading was Luke 17:11-19 (Jesus heals ten lepers, instructing them to show themselves to the priests). The ten lepers had to show themselves to the priests because the priest could authorise their readmission to the society from which they had been ostracised. But one (a Samaritan, no less) comes back and gives thanks and praise to Jesus - on the surface a useless thing to do - but Jesus lets him know that it was the right thing to do and wonders why the other nine didn't bother. The one who gave thanks was more concerned with praising God than with following the prescribed ritual for readmission. Giving praise may baffle the contemporary world because it is perceived to be useless, but when we raise our voices in song it is not about the consequences. The parting of the Red Sea is the prime event in the Old Testament and Jewish history, and out of it comes the Song of Moses. The Song of Songs is the ultimate love song. Sometimes words are not enough. It is love that moves us to sing. The psalms were sung in Old Testament times and the psalter is the original prayer book. Pope Benedict has called music "the sober inebriation of faith".
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The sublime singing, the marvellous organ, the beautiful building, the sun streaming through exquisite glass, the combination of those factors. I understood what it is to be transported by beautiful church music in a beautiful church.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
It was cold inside the cathedral. Really cold. I realised how cold when I got outside afterwards and realised it was so much warmer, although it was mid-October. Also, the reason I moved from my original seat was because there were some spotlights on a photo exhibition and one of them was burning my eyeball where I first sat, so I moved farther back.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Well, nothing. And I tried hard. I smiled at people. I moved around. I stood still. I stood in the coffee queue long enough to see what was on offer. I stood and looked at that exhibition of photos I even made a comment to a man standing there and he responded, but then he moved away. Eventually, I just left.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
It was fair trade instant coffee in a jar, from a supermarket, served in paper cups. There was a queue for it but I didn't try it. I would guess that the tea was also fair trade, but couldn't see. The biscuits were equally uninspiring. Not the high point of the morning.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
10 – If only I could live in Cornwall.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, absolutely, the service did. Like none other. I think the lack of welcome at coffee had more to do with there having been a special preacher and a full house, so that I remained unnoticed. I am sure if I were to be a regular here, I would soon become involved. It was a happy, friendly place. I was just an invisible stranger.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
Oh... that incredible marriage of sound and light and space when a boy soloist launched into the introit from somewhere out of sight and my eyes went up to the heights of this beautiful perfect building, taking me completely out of myself.