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2093: St Paul's Cathedral, London
St Paul's Cathedral, London
Photo: Christine Matthews
Mystery Worshipper: Cool Dude.
The church: St Paul's Cathedral, London.
Denomination: Church of England, Diocese of London.
The building: The first cathedral dedicated to St Paul was founded here over 1,400 years ago (in AD604), and this is the fourth building to occupy the site. The present structure dates from the rebuilding of the City of London following the Great Fire of 1666. Sir Christopher Wren's largest and finest work, it took 40 years to build. The dome of St Paul's is internationally recognised as a symbol of London. The cathedral is the most magnificent and most influential baroque building in the British Isles. It is approaching the end of a 20-year restoration of both the exterior and interior and has never looked finer. Re-ordering of the crossing in the last decade means that the huge space under the dome is the most commonly used worship area, with the clergy being brought out of their quire, thus involving the congregation in the worship far better than previously.
The church: Lacking a residential neighbourhood or a parish, St Paul's has established itself as the mother church of London and perhaps of Britain The cathedral manages its huge tourist numbers well. During services, at least, it is an oasis of calm in the heart of the financial district. Many of those at services appear to be visitors from outside London and around the world, and St Paul's is a true global meeting place for Anglicans and many others.
The neighbourhood: On Sunday evening the City of London (the business district) is deserted except for the tourists around the cathedral and the shops, pubs and restaurants catering for them.
The cast: The Revd Sarah Eynstone, cathedral chaplain, led the service. The Revd Nicolas Stebbing CR, a monk from the Community of the Resurrection in Mirfield, Yorkshire, preached. Patrick Craig was the counter-tenor soloist and Donald Hunt played piano and organ.
The date & time: Sunday, 10 October 2010, 6.00pm.

What was the name of the service?
Meditative Service: Suffering. It was the first of four parts in St Paul's meditative forum season.

How full was the building?
There were about 250 people seated under the dome. The cathedral could have held many times more, but in our three-quarter circle it made for an intimate grouping.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
St Paul's is officially closed on Sundays except for services, but large numbers of tourists enter the west end anyway, only to be stopped there. Just before the service, an announcement was made that those who had come for the service would be admitted. As we passed through the ropes to the dome, the vergers gave us a service sheet and reminded us that we would be expected to stay for the entire service, which would most likely last an hour. (But they did it in as friendly a way as possible.) This seemed wise for a meditative service; otherwise, sightseers would have come and gone, destroying the atmosphere.

Was your pew comfortable?
The modern wooden chairs passed muster.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
At 6.00pm the light was beginning to fade after a glorious autumn day, and late sun streamed briefly through one or two windows. The assembled congregation were quiet and prayerful – as well they might be for a meditation on the theme of suffering.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Thus says the Lord, who created you, he who formed you: do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine." These words, from Isaiah 43, were the beginning of a responsory led by the cathedral chaplain, the Revd Sarah Eynstone.

What books did the congregation use during the service?
There was specially printed, easy to follow, service booklet.

What musical instruments were played?
Organ for the two hymns; piano to accompany the two songs sung by counter-tenor.

Did anything distract you?
The immense dome above. I wanted to look up but kept my eyes down until a pause for reflection in the service. One glance upward and I was transported; though not for so long I couldn't come down to earth again for the sermon!

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was slowly paced, involving, and well thought out. The musical interludes were outstanding. Before the sermon there were a couple of readings as well as a hymn and a solo. After the sermon, during the second song, the people were invited to come forward and light a candle. It was a thoughtful and undemanding service, as the only other congregational participation was in singing a hymn after the opening responsory and another before the Lord's Prayer at the end.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
24 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – Father Stebbing is a white Zimbabwean who has lived through much strife in that country. He preached well, with a poetically repetitive style. He conveyed a kind of stoical faith; he is a "glass half full" man. He sees hope in adversity as one of the truest tests of faith. He didn't, I think, quite say he saw redemption through suffering, but he came close, saying he found it through the knowledge of suffering and the capacity of humankind to create it.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Why does God allow suffering to happen? This is a fundamental question of religion. One of the main reasons that people give up religion is because they see good people suffer. Zimbabwe has seen great suffering, especially during the civil war there. Another question is: Why doesn't God stop it? Suffering is a mystery, but God gave us free will and we want that freedom. Just because some people abuse it doesn't mean God can take it away. God doesn't want puppets. Suffering brings out the best in some people: virtues of courage, unselfishness and love. Suffering makes people grow up. We get involved in trying to alleviate suffering. Calvary was the ultimate place of darkness, despair, fear and death. There was no worse place on earth, and our God went there. When we suffer pain and fear and feel abandoned, God is with us. God has gone there ahead of us. He showed us his wounds, what love costs. Jesus was a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. The whole Christian revelation depends on this. Trusting is not easy, enduring rather than escaping pain. But if, by sin, we try to avoid the pain of suffering, we also miss the pain and joy of love. In the end, there is God, and that makes all the difference.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The counter-tenor singing the contemporary English composer Betty Roe's hauntingly beautiful setting of Robert Herrick's "Anthem sung in the chapel at Whitehall", a melancholy prayer for sin to be healed by divine love. Herrick, as so often in metaphysical poetry, expressed his meaning in corporeal terms: "salve for my body" and "all saving health, and help for me". The directness of the imagery as a vehicle for prayer was heart-stopping.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
I am trying hard here. There is usually something during the course of a service that jars or disappoints or causes uncharitable thoughts to flicker across the mind. But I can't think of one in this case.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
There was a long organ voluntary: "Jesus accepts suffering" from Messaien's "La Nativité du Seigneur". Many stayed and listed to this remarkable piece, which seems like a dialogue between earth and heaven, the fallen and the divine. We all then left quietly into the city dusk – the most fitting end to a remarkable service. Coffee and chat were not on my agenda, nor I suspect on anyone else's.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none. See above.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – This was one of a short series of meditative services and not typical of the mainstream fare. But, based on this example, regular worship is a highly attractive proposition.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
It sure did.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The counter-tenor's voice melting into the vast space of St Paul's, bearing pious and heartfelt prayers.
 
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