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1769: Westminster Cathedral, London
Westminster Cathedral, London
Mystery Worshipper: Jacobsen.
The church: Metropolitan Cathedral of the Most Precious Blood, London.
Denomination: Roman Catholic, Diocese of Westminster.
The building: Where do I start? A magnificent Byzantine structure of various marbles, mosaics, sheer spaciousness. Even their website, which offers a virtual tour of the building, can only highlight details. You need to visit the place yourself.
The church: This is the centre of English Roman Catholicism and is a place of pilgrimage, a place to visit, and a place of worship. It also has a large and thriving interaction with and service to its neighbours, both in pastoral and voluntary care, and a variety of groups that meet in the cathedral itself and in the associated buildings. Immediately after the mass that I attended, the rosary was being recited in a neighbouring chapel. Later that evening a charismatic group was scheduled to meet in one of the assembly rooms.
The neighbourhood: A five minute walk from Victoria Station, destination for many continental trains. Tourist centre, business centre, West End theatre over the road, homeless begging in the street. Multicultural, international. People of all ages and nationalities pass through for a variety of reasons. And there are the residents.
The cast: Mass was concelebrated by three priests, none of whom was introduced to us. I found out afterward that the chief celebrant was the Revd Slawomir Witon, sub-administrator of the cathedral, rector of the College of Chaplains, prefect of the sacristy, and master of ceremonies to the archbishop.
The date & time: Friday, 5 August 2009, 5.30pm.

What was the name of the service?
Holy Mass.

How full was the building?
I counted about 70 people waiting for the service to begin. By 5.30, and with some latecomers, this had risen to an estimated 200 or so.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
There were many people around, but they were obviously visitors like myself. The information desk was shut for the day, and the only person who seemed to be working at the cathedral was lighting the candles on the high altar. I was not put off by this, as I can imagine it being difficult, bordering on the impossible, to have greeters for the numbers of people who must pass through the cathedral daily. I turned the tables on this situation by speaking to various people waiting in the pews.

Was your pew comfortable?
These were interlocked wooden chairs, with a hinged kneeler that served the person sitting in the row behind. I found it quite comfortable, and was there for a good three quarters of an hour, even though the service itself only lasted 35 minutes.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
This is an enormous space. The hushed bustle at the doors and back of the cathedral gave way to great calm and quiet in the front section nearest the main altar. It was immensely soothing. The building is so beautiful that one can sit and gaze comfortably for quite some time. There was one crying baby somewhere in one of the more distant areas, but it was still possible to concentrate, relaxing into the ambience. People coming in moved quietly and spoke very quietly! The numbers assembling crept up imperceptibly, I would say, trebling in the 15 minutes or so before the beginning of the service. The vastness of the space tends to swallow sound.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
None! Not a Bible, service sheet or hymn book was to be found. Several of the congregation were obviously familiar with the format; others, like myself, had to rely on very old memories of the way things used to be, and try to pick it up as we went along. Of course, since this is August and the choir were on holiday, there was in any case no music. I do hope that during the rest of the year, if there are hymns, a sheet is provided. If Westminster Abbey can do that much, so can Westminster Cathedral!

What musical instruments were played?
None. There was no music.

Westminster Cathedral, London

Did anything distract you?
The baby eventually stopped crying, but was replaced as a distraction by a mother and young daughter who came in a few minutes late and engaged in some busy unzipping of bags and jackets in the row behind me. The rows of chairs were rather close together, so when the little girl knelt down – she was minus front teeth, so I would estimate her age as a well grown eight – she was poised over my fleece and shoulder bag which I’d parked in the seat next to me. No eight year old can resist fiddling! Mother apologised. Actually, the girl was really well behaved on the whole, as were all the children I noticed. The quiet was so profound that tiny sounds were more noticeable than they would have been normally. The other distraction was that by chance I had chosen a seat from which the fixed lectern on my side of the aisle blocked my view of the celebrant at the high altar. This was not an issue until the service started, and I was already sufficiently wary of being seen to take notes without wanting to draw further attention to myself by changing seats!

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
This was very much the format I remember as a child. Concelebrated by three vested priests, with the verbal formulas, if not entirely unchanged, still pretty familiar. Bells were jingled at all the appropriate times. The mass was formal but warm, largely owing to the embracing manner of the chief celebrant, who had an engaging verbal delivery that took good account of the PA system and, shall I call them, interesting acoustics! There was one reading given by a lady, and this was very well done indeed. This lady also led the responsorial psalm, and enough of the congregation were familiar with the format to pull the rest of us along with them. There was one bit of chanting after the offertory, to which the congregation chanted Amen in response. I hadn’t been missing my usual hymn fix up until that point, but it was nice to sing even those two notes!

Exactly how long was the sermon?
7 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 – Father Witon, judging by his name, is from eastern Europe. He spoke with some deliberation – partly, I think, out of care for the language, and partly to allow for the time lag of the building. The effect was simple, sincere and unpretentious.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The theme was related to the day's gospel reading, that we have to take up our crosses to follow Jesus. In a world where we are encouraged to seek our own pleasure and happiness as a priority, it can come as a shock to have this advice given to us. But following God's will, while it may cause us pain at times, leads us into joy and freedom.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The wonderful calm of the pre-service period. The presiding priest’s delivery. The combination of great space, and many in the congregation, without actually feeling crowded.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
That wretched lectern! All my own fault, of course, but I didn’t foresee that it would be an irritant. And I would have welcomed a service sheet.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Looking lost would have got me nowhere, as it was obviously not the kind of service where tea and biccies are on offer for upwards of 200. Two things happened: The saying of the rosary began in a neighbouring chapel, and I spotted the lady who’d done the reading. I made my way over to her to compliment her on her delivery and to find out about the chief celebrant! This was the sort of occasion where people don’t approach each other unless, like me, they need information and there’s no official around to give it.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
None on offer.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – I was soothed and comforted by the atmosphere and conduct of the service. Inevitably, if I were to become a regular, I would not be a transient worshipper, and would be building a relationship with the place and its staff. But that, I feel, would not be too hard to do.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. It made me grateful that such a place would be there when I needed it.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The sheer beauty and calm of the place.
 
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