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1838: St Paul's Cathedral, London
St Paul's Cathedral, London
Mystery Worshipper: Aurelia.
The church: St Paul's Cathedral, London.
Denomination: Church of England, Diocese of London.
The building: Sir Christopher Wren's masterpiece, built between 1675 and 1710 after the Fire of London in 1666 destroyed the Gothic cathedral that had occupied the site for over 500 years. It is one of the largest churches in the world, in traditional cruciform shape, with a long nave, north and south transepts, quire, and the colossal dome over the crossing, a London landmark that famously stood firm through the London Blitz in World War II. In the interior there are side chapels and monuments, and an immense amount of elaborate ornamentation, but the overall impression is of a unity of design. The Baroque style is of a kind more commonly associated with Roman Catholicism (or with civic architecture such as museums, government buildings, and high Victorian train stations) than with Anglican cathedrals.
The church: As the cathedral church of a capital city, and a major tourist destination, St Paul's not only offers daily and Sunday worship but hosts a large number of civic and cultural events throughout the year. Its website describes events ranging from political debate, theological conferences, and seasonal liturgies to a celebration marking the launch of the Disney film of A Christmas Carol, in which, according to the website, St Paul's cathedral choir will perform, joining London in an attempt to break the Guinness world record for the biggest ever Christmas Carol sing-a-long.
The neighbourhood: The City of London, a small enclave of history and high finance that retains many eccentric traditions dating back to the Middle Ages. The City has been devastated and rebuilt twice: first as a a result of the Great Fire of London in 1666, and again as a result of the Blitz in World War II. The postwar rebuilding was modernist and often ill-thought-out, but has been gradually humanised in the last several decades, and the cathedral is now at the centre of an attractive plaza with cafes and shops.
The cast: The celebrant ("president" was the term used) was not named, and may have been the dean or one of the canons. The preacher, who also welcomed the congregation before the service began, was the Revd Canon Lucy Winkett, precentor. The cathedral choir of men and boys sang the Mass for Four Voices by William Byrd.
The date & time: Sunday, 11 October 2009, 11.30am.

What was the name of the service?
Sung Eucharist.

How full was the building?
Numbers are hard to judge in such a colossal space. Chairs were arranged in a near-circle under the dome, and these were rapidly filling up as we arrived 10 minutes before the service began, and by first hymn were essentially full. Behind the circle, there was a section of the nave also set up for worshippers, and this was nearly empty at the beginning of the service and nearly full by communion time. Behind that section, set apart by a rope, was a third section, for cathedral visitors who did not wish to participate actively in the worship but merely to wait respectfully for it to be over before wandering about the building to see its sights. This too was full by the end of the service.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
There was a definite sense of welcome and (I felt) a successful balance between the cathedral's role as a place of worship and its other role as a tourist destination. There are no guided tours on Sundays, and no admission charges – anyone who wishes to worship is welcome to come as far forward as they are comfortable with, and anyone who prefers the role of spectator is welcomed into the space behind the ropes and simply asked to be respectfully quiet as the worship is going on. The ushers were gracious and well-trained. The parts of the service leaflet explaining the guidelines for visitors were printed in French, German, Italian and Spanish as well as English.

Was your pew comfortable?
The seats were black metal stackable chairs – serviceable and reasonably comfortable, though ugly.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
As we walked to the cathedral from the tube station, the cathedral's bells were being rung – a wonderful, exhilarating cacophony that continued (though barely audible indoors) as the organist played a prelude and people found their seats. Not quiet, certainly, but festive and reverential!

What were the exact opening words of the service?
Canon Winkett welcomed the congregation before the first hymn (sorry, I forgot to note her exact words); then, after the opening hymn, the liturgy proper began with "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit," and the collect for purity.

What books did the congregation use during the service?
Everything was printed in a handsome leaflet, including the melodies for the hymns. The lessons, however, were not printed out, forcing this Mystery Worshipper to pay careful attention rather than simply reading along as she tends to do in her home church.

What musical instruments were played?
Pipe organ.

Did anything distract you?
It's hard not to be distracted by the architecture of a place on this scale! The sheer size of the place, plus all the restless Baroque ornamentation, plus the Victorian mosaics in the dome and aisles, tend to cause the mind to wander. I got entangled in a mental analysis of why I find Gothic architecture so much more intrinsically "spiritual" than Baroque. Acoustically, the extreme liveness of the space – the echoes and reverberations that were set going every time anybody spoke or sang – were fascinating and therefore also somewhat distracting.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Classic Anglican cathedral style: dignified, impersonal, but not in the least stuffy or off-putting.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
12 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – Canon Winkett spoke clearly (in spite of the echoes) and warmly from the high pulpit. She was reading her sermon, but that does not bother me: I am not of the school that automatically grants extra points for
ex tempore preaching.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Canon Winkett preached on the gospel – the story of the rich young man to whom Jesus said, "Go and sell all that you have." She applied the story to the current economic slump, the irresponsible behaviour of money managers that brought on the crash, and the values of contemporary culture. She challenged the congregation to make choices in our own lives that accord with the economic values of the gospel.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The glorious music, the diversity of the congregation, and the obvious thought and effort the staff had put in to using the space and other resources of the cathedral to make a welcoming and accessible experience of worship. One heavenly moment for me in particular came at communion. The sacrament was given (in one kind only, because of the swine flu risk) by a minister who stood still as worshippers passed by him briefly and then immediately returned to their seats. I'm not fond of this method in general because it goes by too fast. What was especially awkward for me on this occasion was that I found myself leaving the spot where I had received, and facing a long line of boy choristers who were filing up for communion and seemingly blocking my way back to my seat. I didn't know whether to wend my way behind the minister who was about to give communion to the choirboys, or to try to go around them, or what. One little boy, who couldn't have been more than nine years old, spotted my consternation, stopped, and gestured me through the line of choristers so I could get back to my seat. Whether this was something that the boys are intentionally trained to do, or whether it was the alertness and thoughtfulness of this one boy, I wouldn't know – but either way it was heavenly.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Really, there was nothing that was hellish, just a few awkward moments. I found the first hymn hard to sing because I did not understand what was meant by the words "last verse" over the second half of the tune, until more than halfway through the hymn. Most of the hymns were set to what this American felt to be the "wrong" tunes. And it was awkward when the gospeller processed to a very large eagle lectern at the edge of the circle and set the book on the eagle – and then there was no sound amplification. But for all I know, that is the way it is meant to be. He did a fine job of making the gospel audible and understandable in spite of the incredible reverberations and the lack of amplification.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
This isn't really a place where "hanging around after the service looking lost" would have the same impact as in, say, a small parish church. The default status for everyone there was "visitor." There was an ample supply of cathedral staff to answer anybody's questions, and I noted several staff members engaging in lively conversations with various congregants. As for us, we wanted a WC and had no trouble getting clear directions.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
None available – there is both a cafe and a high-end restaurant in the crypt, and we considered both of them (as well as several neighbourhood eateries) for Sunday lunch, before making other plans based on the preferences of some in our party who had been too tired to come to church and were still at our hotel two Tube stops away.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 – It's not the sort of place where it would make any sense to attend regularly; its ministry is to visitors, guests, tourists, and the public at large.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Very much so.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The reverberations ... and the courtesy of that one small choirboy.
 
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