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884: St Mary the Great, Cambridge, England
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St Mary the Great, Cambridge, England
Mystery Worshipper: Mr Ricarno.
The church: St Mary the Great, Cambridge, England.
Denomination: Church of England.
The building: From the outside, this church looks fairly impressive; with its tower and battlements it resembles a hybrid between a church and a castle fortress – in keeping with the architecture around it. It is over the road from King's College, which has similar battlements, and so adds a sense of balance to this part of Cambridge. Inside, it is again quite awe-inspiring in a simple way. Although it has its fair share of ornaments, these are hidden away in corners as though the congregation is rather embarrassed by them!
The church: Great St Mary's is the university church of Cambridge as well as the parish church. Being in such a prestigious town, it's one of the tourist centres and contains something which looks suspiciously like a cathedral shop at the back. This was, however, closed when I was there.
The neighbourhood: The colleges! The church is right in the centre of the academic area of Cambridge. There are also buskers who tend to strut around outside singing their little hearts out during services.
The cast: The Most Rev. Dr Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury (speaker); The Rev. Dr John Binns.
What was the name of the service?
An Address on the Resurrection.

How full was the building?
The church was full to the brim as one might expect when an archbishop is speaking, and particularly one who attracts as much interest and controversy as Dr Williams. Fortunately, my co-conspirator and I arrived early enough to grab front-row seats. We're still debating whether we were doing this out of a desire to be closer to the altar, or to be closer to the archbishop?

Did anyone welcome you personally?
Well, an usher quietly handed me an order of service and directed us to some seats in the front row. Apart from that we were generally left to ourselves.

Was your pew comfortable?
As church pews go... yes. There were cushions and kneelers, which were a blessing. However, since this was an address, I spent most of the time sitting down, and by the end of the service I had a very numb backside.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Chatty but not too loud. This was an occasion for people from all sorts of backgrounds to come to Great St Mary's, so I suspect there were a few groups of friends chatting noisily. Certainly the atmosphere was friendly, at any rate.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Ladies and gentlemen, I'd like to offer you a warm welcome to Great St Mary's this afternoon."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
None – we were given an order of service, which contained the words from two hymns.

What musical instruments were played?
A pipe organ. I wish I could make some judicious comment on it, but I'm afraid I know nothing about these instruments. It was a very rousing sound, which made a pleasant change from what I'm used to.

Did anything distract you?
From where we were sitting, an icon of the Virgin and votive candles were directly in front of us. It was easy to be distracted by them, which I suppose can't be a bad thing. And there was an acquaintance of mine sitting behind me, who tapped me on the shoulder to say "hello" when I'd really rather have been left alone talking to the friend I'd come with. His shocking bleach-blond hairstyle was enough to scare the beegees out of me.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Traditional, middle-of-the-road Anglican, I'd say. Some well-chosen resurrection-related hymns were sung with great gusto by the congregation, e.g. "Thine be the glory", sung after the address. Wonderful stuff, if a little middle class.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
45 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 – Rowan Williams has a way of drawing his listeners in and taking them on a journey towards his conclusion in a very involved way, which I have never experienced before. A superlative preacher, as always. Though, as my friend remarked, he has a tendency to put all his most interesting points in parentheses, so that he doesn't expand on them.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The resurrection was the overturning of a court ruling by a higher court. It was a statement that the world has begun again. It was the start of a new world. The New Testament does not allow for the belief that the resurrection was merely a vivid memory of Jesus. The New Testament points to the fact that Jesus' resurrection was more than that. We must take up the challenge given us by the risen Jesus and walk with him, "never quite catching him up".

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Singing the final hymn. There was such a sense of joy and energy which uplifted me. I really hope heaven's like that.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
After the address, there was the opportunity to ask the archbishop questions. I kept my hand raised throughout this Q&A session but was never given the go-ahead to ask my (very interesting and relevant) question. It was hellish waiting and waiting and being studiously ignored by the archbishop. Maybe I was at the wrong angle and he couldn't see me through those specs.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
As soon as the session finished, an older couple sitting next to us gave me their sympathy that I hadn't been able to ask my question. That was very kind of them, thought I. Everybody else had gathered at the back of the church to shake hands and chat with the archbishop, and I soon joined them.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There wasn't any, though Michaelhouse Café, just down the road, is their church hall, and they do sell very good coffee, tea and cakes. Though I emphasise that they sell these commodities.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – I really enjoyed the service, and the church has a reputation for stimulating preaching, which I'd love to hear more of. However, I got the impression that the congregation is mainly older folks and, being an undergrad, I'd rather stick with my more student-oriented regular one.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. The joy it gave me was one of the factors which led to my confirmation into the Church of England a month later. Many of my (totally non-Anglican, almost anti-Anglican) friends told me that they'd found the experience a positive one.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The thing I most remember about it (it was more than a week ago!) is getting the archbishop to sign my order of service. When I approached him he seemed very shy, almost more nervous of meeting me than I was of meeting him! The order of service rests in my scrapbook, with his signature "+Rowan Cantuar" on the front cover. It's a lovely memento.
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