Mystery Worshipper: Cornerstone
Church: St Edmundsbury Cathedral
Location: Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, England
Date of visit: Saturday, 29 March 2014, 12:00pm
A parish church named for St James was begun in 1503 on the grounds of what was once a Benedictine abbey. The church was elevated to the status of cathedral in 1914, exactly 100 years ago. Today's building is a seamless blend of early 16th century work and modern Gothic design, plain but richly decorated, and capped with a millennium tower visible from miles around. The tower dominates the skyline. All in all, a bright and cheerful place.
A typical cathedral community, apparently made up of those who love choir-led sung services, those who are fed up with their local churches, those who just want to be anonymous, and tourists who can't make it out. They have a rich music program featuring a full schedule of concerts and organ recitals as well as high choral services. The Edmund Gallery, the cathedral's art gallery and exhibition space, hosts a varied program of exhibitions throughout the year. They support a large number of charities including the Children's Society and Christian Aid. An interesting bit of historical trivia: the affluent American summer playground known as Martha's Vineyard, off the coast of Massachusetts, was named after the daughter of Bartholomew Gosnold, who founded the Jamestown colony in 1607. Martha was baptised at St James in 1597.
Bury St Edmonds is an interesting medieval town set out on a grid iron pattern based on the axis of the nave of the old abbey church. The tomb of King Edmund, who was slain by the Danes in 869, was located in the old abbey; indeed, the shrine of the martyr king was the site of many reputed miracles.
The Most Revd and Rt Hon. Justin Portal Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, was the preacher. The Rt Revd David Thomson, acting bishop of the Diocese of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich, and the Very Revd Dr Frances Ward, dean of the cathedral, led the service.
What was the name of the service?Holy Communion to celebrate the launch of the celebrations for the centenary of the diocese
How full was the building?
Full to capacity.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes. Four people smiled at me; one handed me a book and one shook my hand.
Was your pew comfortable?
Yes, the pew was reasonably comfortable, but would have got uncomfortable had the service been longer. Hassocks everywhere got under your feet.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
There was a general expectant hum about the place, and the organist in his colourful little gondola strung high above the choir tinkled on the ivories for a long time.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning and welcome to you all on this very happy occasion."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Specially printed glossy service book with the hymns printed out within, intended as a souvenir of the occasion as well as a service book (I wonder what it cost to produce?).
What musical instruments were played?
Organ, Steinway grand piano, violins, guitar, woodwinds and reeds in variety (flute, recorders and sax), drum kit.
Did anything distract you?
The art in the nave was really good, if a bit over the top: brightly coloured kids stuff, much of it collage in the style of the duo known as Gilbert & George, known for their large, colourful, sometimes shocking posters of contemporary life. The incessant piano playing was more in the style of Elton John than Isaac Watts, and it filled in every conceivable space in the liturgy, sometimes overplaying it.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Hard to tell. Eclectic "world music" style probably describes it best, with a bit of everything: incense (clouds of it!) candles, gaily coloured clergy in their best gold carpet copes, flag-waving children, dancing braves, virtuoso organ pieces, drama, modern pseudo-spiritual songs, modern and ancient worship songs, lots of laughter, joy and light. An under verger read the gospel (when did you last see that in a church?).
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 – The archbishop's sermon seemed to consist of prepared answers to planted questions asked by children and young people, but it was delivered as though unexpected – with a light ex tempore touch and apparently without a script. Impressive, but then again he is the Archbishop of Canterbury!
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The questions centred on the themes "What is a pilgrim and are you one?", "Why is prayer important?", "What do you think about gay marriage?", "How can I live out my faith?", etc. The ABC's answers can be summed up by saying that being a follower of Jesus Christ is the best thing anyone can ever do.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Wonderful singing. Also, the liturgical dance was uplifting and most unexpected in this setting.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
I have never been a fan of Elton John. Sometimes there was just too much piano. If there is a piano in heaven, book me a place elsewhere. Scripted prayers, over-long and over the piano. Call to confession over the piano. Absolution over the piano. Communion over the piano. Leaving over the piano. I almost felt relieved to hear the organ!
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Someone directed me to the tea tent outside and encouraged me to "join the others."
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Good strong fairly traded English tea from a tea pot. Spoon-melting stuff!
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 – The service was so much not what you expect to find in a cathedral. If this were their everyday style, I would definitely join, but I suspect many others had a hand in its formation.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Definitely.This showed what a cathedral can do when it gets real about the need to produce truly uplifting model worship. Nothing was sloppy and no time was wasted.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
How the service unfolded with real polish.