St Paul's Cathedral, Wellington, NZ

Wellington Cathedral of St Paul, Wellington, New Zealand


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Wellington Cathedral of St Paul
Location: Wellington, New Zealand
Date of visit: Sunday, 27 January 2013, 5:00pm

The building

Wellington has two cathedrals dedicated to St Paul. "Old St Paul's" was constructed of native New Zealand timbers in the Gothic Revival style, and was consecrated in 1866. Unsuitable due to its size and its instability in high winds, it was abandoned in 1964. Although Old St Paul's is no longer the seat of the Bishop of Wellington, it remains consecrated and is a popular venue for weddings and funerals. The cornerstone of "New St Paul's" was laid in 1954 by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, then newly crowned, on her first visit to New Zealand. It began functioning as a cathedral in 1964 but was not finished until 2001. Outside it is monolithic, and pale pink. The interior is enormous, both broad and high. Wooden choir stalls set widely apart frame the high altar beyond, with a massive tapestry of Christ in majesty behind it. The colour scheme overall is pastel shades but with more strongly coloured stained glass windows.

The church

It is the central church for the diocese of Wellington, which covers the southern portion of New Zealand's North Island. They sponsor a number of youth programs, including Tots'N'Tunes, a weekly musical session for pre-schoolers and their parents/caregivers, and a children's worship center based on the Montessori concept of godly play.

The neighborhood

Wellington, New Zealand's capital, lies on the southwestern tip of North Island and is one of the island's major population centres. The city prides itself on its arts scene, café culture and nightlife, as well as an overall quality of life that has consistently won awards. The cathedral is very much a city centre church. One one side are the Parliament buildings; on the opposite corner is the National Library of New Zealand.

The cast

The service was led by the Revd Jenny Wilkens, canon in residence and acting dean. The Revd Dr Raymond Pelly, priest associate, preached.

What was the name of the service?

Choral Evensong (1928 Book of Common Prayer)

How full was the building?

About 40 people, so given the size of the building, a very small number. It should be noted that January is summer holiday time in New Zealand.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

I was warmly greeted by a welcomer in the foyer, and again immediately inside the main doors, and again halfway down the church.

Was your pew comfortable?

A very comfortable chair. Shelves (in the back of the chair in front) held a kneeler, in case I wanted to use it, and space for books.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Reverent but not quiet, as the choir were still rehearsing. There were a few moments of silence after that.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"We wait for thy loving-kindness" (the first words of the introductory anthem, sung by the choir). The first spoken words were of welcome to the congregation.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

A booklet introducing the outline of the service, and containing all the words, plus the hymn book Common Praise.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ. The choir made a generous contribution; they sang a short piece at the beginning, responses during the service, choral settings of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis by Herbert Howells (originally written for St Pauls Cathedral, London), and toward the end a second anthem Give us the Wings of Faith.

Did anything distract you?

Yes, just before the service some rather off "noises off" (see below).

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

Traditional Anglican worship with lots of music.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

19 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

7 – Erudite; the Revd Dr Raymond Pelly knows his Bible well. He wanted to "bring Paul alive" for us but got slightly carried away, and so I thought he went on a little too long.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The popular image of St Paul is as "a bit of a grump, against women, and making Jesus hard to understand." But Paul was a well-educated rabbi who, after a shattering encounter with the risen Christ, became a keen missionary of the new faith. God takes amazing initiatives to seek out the lost, and Paul took an inclusive theology from this. The key to it is humility and service, which are Christ-like things. We are all ambassadors for Christ. We should never give up, but always aim for reconciliation in Christ.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The music. The choir had clearly returned refreshed from their holidays. The buildings size makes it a challenge for singers (its echo lasts around five seconds), especially performing Howells rather elusive style of choral music, but they were in full control. The organ voluntary at the end, also by Howells, was electrifying too (and I noticed almost all the congregation stayed to listen to it).

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

Distant electronic noises before the service started, sounding rather like remote tuneless jazz on a very tinny transistor radio. Very distracting. Thankfully it stopped just before the service started.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

Canon Wilkens and the Revd Pelly both waited at the back of the cathedral to greet all those leaving the service. Other worshippers spoke to me as we walked out.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

No coffee. Wrong time of day!

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

10 – If the music is that good all the time it might even be worth my while to emigrate!

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?


What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

The music. Probably for a lot longer than seven days!

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