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1662: Durham Cathedral, Durham, England
Durham Cathedral, Durham, England
Mystery Worshipper: Chris Teean.
The church: The Cathedral Church of Christ, Blessed Mary the Virgin and St Cuthbert of Durham, Durham, England.
Denomination: Church of England, Diocese of Durham.
The building: The cathedral is the finest example of early Norman architecture in England. Its spectacular, elevated position, almost entirely surrounded by the River Wear, embraces the incomparable beauty of this magnificent holy edifice. The main approach by foot or vehicle is a steep climb up a narrow cobbled street leading from the small crowded city centre. When you reach Palace Green you find you are in a completely different world altogether; it is in fact a World Heritage site. The noble and princely cathedral stands high on the far side of the green and you enter by the north door that has an imposing bronze sanctuary knocker. This is a near perfect replica of the 12th century original, which is kept in the treasury museum. It features the face of a hideous beast and represents the ancient privilege of sanctuary once granted to criminals. The breathtaking interior of the cathedral is equally stunning and has been described by other Mystery Worshippers in 2008 and 2007. I can only add that one is drawn to walk down the centre aisle of the nave, with its high ribbed vaulted ceiling supported by immense spiral and zig-zag decorated cylindrical columns, towards the magnificent high altar which is backed by the beautiful rose window. The tomb of St Cuthbert lies behind the high altar in the chapel of nine altars. St Bedeís tomb can be found in the Galilee chapel at the west end.
The church: The cathedral celebrates holy communion as well as morning and evening prayer every day. Many special services and events are held throughout the year. There has been a choir at Durham for over 600 years; the present choir of 20 boys and 12 gentlemen sing evensong every day of the week except Monday as well as three services each Sunday. A second choir, the Consort of Singers, was founded in 1997 because of the growing numbers of special services; this consists of 21 adult volunteer singers. At the annual Durham Minersí Gala, banners accompanied by brass bands are paraded through the town for a special service at the cathedral. As one would expect, there are very close links between the cathedral and the university. The University of Durham holds its ceremonies in the cathedral. I have been privileged to attend congregation services where my son received two degrees from the hands of the chancellor, the US born anglophile and writer Bill Bryson. In his book Notes from a Small Island he wrote: "I unhesitatingly gave Durham my vote for best cathedral on planet Earth." I wonder if he ever imagined he would become its chancellor? Perhaps that is why he became the chancellor!
The neighbourhood: My heart always soars when I drive toward Durham, particularly when entering the county of Durham, known as the Land of the Prince Bishops, harking back to the time when the Lord Bishop of Durham held temporal as well as spiritual sway. Although it has an industrial heritage of coal mining, the county is very agricultural and is well established as a tourist destination. In fact, this north Pennine area has been officially designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. When you approach Durham by road or rail, the sight of the majestic medieval cathedral towering above the city just takes your breath away. My route into Durham brings me past the newer colleges, and within minutes I find myself in the centre. The cathedralís immediate neighbours are the castle, many university colleges, libraries, museums, alms houses, student lodgings and the many church buildings that are necessary for the support of the cathedral. Descending into the city, you pass a few restaurants, bookshops and boutiques until you reach its congested heart, which has banks, offices, and all the usual shops that you will encounter in any city. The coal mining industry disappeared many years ago but there is still very much a working class air about the city. However, the student population and the thousands of tourists contribute toward a cosmopolitan atmosphere. Further afield you encounter more university colleges, lecture theatres and laboratories to the south of the river. Elsewhere there are residential areas surrounding the city that vary from the most exclusive to the almost squalid.
The cast: The service was led by the dean, the Very Revd Michael Sadgrove. The Rt Revd Nicholas Thomas Wright, Bishop of Durham, read the ninth lesson and gave the blessing.
The date & time: Monday, 22 December 2008, 7.00pm.

What was the name of the service?
Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols.

How full was the building?
It was absolutely full, with spare chairs placed in every conceivable nook and cranny. We arrived about 50 minutes early and found it to be filling up quite rapidly. I believe there were about 3,000 people in the congregation.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
A gentleman from a team of stewards greeted us with "Good evening" as he handed us a service booklet.

Was your pew comfortable?
Yes it was comfortable enough.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Bearing in mind the enormous size of the congregation, it was fairly quiet, with most people just talking quietly amongst themselves.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Once in royal Davidís city" was sung exquisitely by a solo choirboy. Then, after the procession of choir and clergy, the dean opened the service with the bidding prayer: "Beloved in Christ, the Lord God Almighty is also God of wisdom, loving-kindness and grace."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
We had everything we needed in the service booklet handed to us as we entered.

What musical instruments were played?
Organ. A large number of instruments have graced the cathedral over the past 700 years, and the present one is magnificent! Originally by Henry Willis & Sons Ltd, the "Father Willis" organ dates from 1876 and was extensively rebuilt, enlarged and re-voiced in 1903, and again in 1935, and finally in 1970, by the Harrison & Harrison firm of Durham. It is justly renowned, widely acclaimed as a masterpiece of Romantic organ-building, "one of the great treasures of the English speaking world" in the words of one commentator.

Did anything distract you?
It always seems to be my bad luck that people who suffer from verbal diarrhoea sit within my vicinity. Before the service started, three ladies sitting behind me engaged in serious gossiping. They obviously had not looked at the service book, which described "Organ music before the service during which you are asked to sit quietly."

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was extremely reverent and moving, and I would say it was fairly high church as befits a cathedral. The crucifer led the procession of robed choir, many wearing academic hoods, carrying their candle-lit music, and followed by the clergy in full vestments. I could not see whether they genuflected or bowed at the altar – I would have to grow another 12 inches to achieve that.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
No sermon.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
At the beginning of the service the lights were dimmed, we stood up, and then the lights were turned completely out. There was absolute silence and not one person in those 3,000 coughed. It was so still. Then a boy with an exquisite voice sang the first verse of "Once in royal Davidís city." The acoustics of the cathedral must be so finely tuned and exact because that divine solo came over as pure perfection. As the lights slowly came back on, we were able to see the procession and hear the choir sing in all its glory. We were treated to a wonderful selection of carols both modern and traditional, some in French and some in Latin, and the choir just excelled itself with its resplendent singing.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
As I mentioned earlier, organ music was played before the service. It was La nativité du Seigneur, nine meditations for organ by Olivier Messiaen. I donít think there will be many people around who could hum one of his tunes, because he was a 20th century composer who broke completely away from the ideas of traditional harmonies and basically invented his own system of music making. I think you would probably have to be an academic in music to appreciate his compositions. His works are probably fiendishly difficult to play, but the advantage is that itís highly likely that no one will notice if a mistake is made! There were all sorts of rumblings and crashes coming from the organ, and I have to admit that I wondered if at one point the organist had put two elbows on the keyboard, or did he just sit on it? My sincere apologies to Messiaen, but on such an occasion I would have preferred something more traditional and tuneful.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Everyone was making a slow exit from the cathedral so there was no opportunity for looking lost. I was more concerned about concealing my Mystery Worshipper card in the baskets being held out for the retiring collection.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There were no refreshments afterwards.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
10 – I have visited Durham quite a few times in the past six years and have always chosen to worship here. I am bound to be here again as a visitor some time in the future. At least I hope so!

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

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The darkness, the stillness, and that beautiful solo rendition of "Once in royal Davidís city" filling the cathedral and floating up to heaven.
 
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