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Cathedral, Durham, England
Cathedral Church of Christ, Blessed Mary the Virgin and St Cuthbert
of Durham, Durham, England.
Church of England, Diocese
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
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 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!
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
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
Bearing in mind the enormous size of the congregation, it was
fairly quiet, with most people just talking quietly amongst
What were the exact opening words of the
"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
We had everything we needed in the service booklet handed to us as we entered.
What musical instruments
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
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
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?
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
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
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
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
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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