|Comment on this report, or find other reports.
|Our Mystery Worshippers are volunteers who warm church pews for us around the world. If you'd like to become a Mystery Worshipper, start here.
|Find out how to reproduce this report in your church magazine or website.
Cathedral, Portsmouth, England
Church of St Thomas of Canterbury, Portsmouth, England.
Church of England, Diocese
There is an impressive 3D tour on the cathedral's website, which
does more justice to the building than I can! The cathedral
began in 1180 as a chapel dedicated to Thomas à Becket.
The building survived incendiary attacks by the French during
the 100 Years War, a papal interdict, and cannon fire during
the English Civil War. Charles II had parts of the church rebuilt
between 1691 and 1693 and it was during this period that the
main tower was built. The cupola was added a decade later. Extensive
repairs were carried out over a two year period beginning in
1902, and in 1930 an enlargement program was begun after the
Diocese of Portsmouth was created and the church became its
cathedral. Today's building retains only some of its early medieval
design. To the west of the original back of the church lies
the new nave, of relatively short length but wide enough to
accommodate chairs arranged in a semi-circle. The seats in the
centre of the nave afford a view through the crossing (with
organ loft above) to the long medieval chancel. Built in light
stone with sweeping Norman-style arches, the nave is remarkably
self contained – it would, I suppose, be possible to have
two entirely separate services going on in the chancel and the
nave, such is the separation between the two. The cathedral's
tower is reminiscent of a lighthouse – fitting for a city
so intricately linked to the sea.
The cathedral is both the mother church of the Diocese of Portsmouth
and a parish church in its own right. Their website includes
information about its parish groups, including Sunday school,
a mothers' and toddlers' group, youth club, guides and welcomers,
choir, bell ringers, and a needlecraft group, among others.
I mean it positively when I say that entering the cathedral
feels more akin to entering a parish church than a cathedral,
which in my experience can seem stuffy and museum-like even
The cathedral is in old Portsmouth, close to the docks from
where departed such famous ships as the Mary Rose,
Henry VIII's favourite ship, and HMS Victory, commanded
by Vice-Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson during the Battle of Trafalgar,
and from whose decks Lord Nelson issued his famous order: "England
expects that every man will do his duty." Once upon a time
the area was the first port of call for sailors looking for
traditional pursuits whilst on shore leave, but now the Georgian
houses have been politely gentrified and exclusive new-builds
are sold for eye-watering prices. Portsmouth's Spinnaker Tower
and Gunwharf Quays, symbol of the city's recent renaissance,
are within walking distance.
The service was led by the dean, the Very Revd David Brindley,
in the presence of the Rt Revd Dr Kenneth Stevenson, Bishop
of Portsmouth, who gave the final blessing. Also present were
a full crowd of cathedral clergy who primarily attended in choir,
as most of the readings were given by lay persons.
The date & time:
First Sunday of Advent, 30 November 2008, 6.00pm.
What was the name of the service?
Preparing the Way: An Advent Procession with Lessons and Carols.
How full was the building?
The central areas of the nave, where I was sitting, were full,
probably around 120 people. However, there were more people
sitting in the quire, and with considerable numbers of clergy
and choir, I would guess that there were at least twice that
number in the cathedral overall.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
A sign outside the cathedral announced "Welcome", and beyond
the inner door (understandably closed on such a foul night outside)
a sidesperson handed me an order of service and said hello,
pointing me to her colleague who was handing out candles with
a friendly smile.
Was your pew comfortable?
It was a padded seat and very comfortable.
How would you describe the pre-service
Until two minutes before the service started, all that could
be heard were whispered murmurings echoing between walls. Then
the choir climbed the stairs up to the gallery above the west
door, and sadly the sound of many pairs of feet traipsing up
the stairs became particularly audible. The remarkable acoustics
of the building meant that every shuffle of the choristers'
music could be heard by the congregation down below. But this
really is a relatively minor irritation.
What were the exact opening words of the
"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."
What books did the congregation use during the
A printed leaflet produced especially for the service. It included
an informative introduction both about the season of Advent
and the liturgy for the evening. It also included all the rubrics,
which were integral to the progress of the service.
What musical instruments
The cathedral's organ accompanied its choir, who were in fine
form. The organ, an opus of John Nicholson & Co. of Worcester,
was built in 1851 for Manchester Cathedral and moved to Plymouth
in 1994, where it occupies the restored elaborate original case
dating from 1718.
Did anything distract
A minor but necessary distraction was the shadow cast by the
conductor's movements for as long as the choir were singing
from the west gallery, which was one of the few areas of the
cathedral which were lit at the beginning of the service. I
was also somewhat distracted by the six sidespeople who stood
by the door for the duration of the service; this seemed a little
excessive, particularly as the layout of the building meant
that it was some way away from the main congregation seating
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or
In a nutshell, the service was a well choreographed cathedral
worship, well in keeping with the English choral tradition and
drawing on both ancient and modern sources. The service started
at the east end (although the choir was at the west) in near
darkness. As the service progressed, the clergy and choir moved
into the quire and then into the nave, before ending at the
west door. The service was a mix of anthems, congregational
carols, readings, prayers and poetry, all with a strong Advent
theme. All the congregation were given candles, which were symbolically
lit, and good use was made of the cathedral's space, in terms
of progression around the building, multi-location singing and
the excellent lighting profiles available within the building.
The cathedral's peace globe, a spherical wire sculpture with
space for many candles, was lit during the climax of the service
whilst the congregation sang "Christ is the world's true Light."
In terms of celebrating Advent, the worship was spot on.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
There was no sermon.
Which part of the service
was like being in heaven?
First of all, being part of a service celebrating Advent for
its own value, rather than as an obstacle to get around to get
to Christmas. But in particular, the music – the reason
I'd travelled around 30 miles to attend – was heavenly,
and I particularly enjoyed the Bogoroditsye Dyevo (Ave
Maria) by the Estonian minimalist composer Arvo Pärt, which
I hadn't heard before.
And which part was like
being in... er... the other place?
It may have been intentional that the microphone was not turned
on for some of the early parts of the service from the east
end of the cathedral, but sadly it made it rather difficult
to follow some of the initial parts. Oh, and holding a candle
for so long meant it was inevitable that I'd get hot wax on
my hands at some point. I'm that sort of person.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
The service guide instructed us to "carry our candles out
of the cathedral as a light for the future." However, I
was not unusual in handing mine back in. The very friendly sidesperson
invited me to keep it, but I said they would probably make more
use of it than I would, and besides, I'd already done myself
an injury on it! Someone said good evening to me and complimented
me on my singing, and a number of people smiled and said hello
as we made our way to the doorway. However, with a service such
as this comprised (I imagine) of a large proportion of visitors,
I'm not surprised that no one struck up more of a conversation
as I lingered around the bookstall by the exit. Everyone leaving
the cathedral was given a copy of the winter edition of The
Letter, a well printed newsletter. Should I have wished
to make more contact with the cathedral, this provided me with
everything I needed to know.
How would you describe the after-service
There was nothing provided at the cathedral, although Portsmouth
is blessed with many fine pubs (that naval connection again)
for those wishing to partake of after-service refreshments.
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 It's about a 40 minute drive from home, so not really
feasible, but as an occasional treat for high days and holy
days I'd definitely make the effort to attend here (and probably
in preference to the two Anglican cathedrals which are closer
Did the service make you feel glad to be a
Yes, and particularly to be part of a church that celebrates
seasons so well.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The end of the service, with the choir singing the end of "People
look east" ("Love, the Lord is on the way") apparently
randomly and repeatedly as they left the building. In less capable
hands it could have been a musical disaster; actually, it was
a very effective way of closing the service.
|We rely on voluntary donations to stay online. If you're a regular visitor to Ship of Fools, please consider supporting us.
|The Mystery Pilgrim
| One of our most seasoned reporters makes the Camino pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Read here.
| Read reports from 70 London churches, visited by a small army of Mystery Worshippers on one single Sunday. Read here.