Mystery Worshipper: Cantate Domino
Church: St George's Cathedral
Location: Perth, Western Australia
Date of visit: Thursday, 22 May 2008, 7:00pm
St George's is a 19th century brick cathedral, designed by the colonial architect Edmund Blacket, who also designed the Anglican cathedrals in Goulburn, Sydney and Hobart but who never actually visited Perth. Its battlemented bell tower was put up in 1902 as a memorial to Queen Victoria. The cathedral is brick inside and out but the columns in the nave are a dark marble. The stained glass and furnishings are all very Victorian, but the hammer beam roofs are gloriously intricate and made from beautiful dark timbers. There are a couple of lovely surprises in the north transept: a 15th century statue of St George and steps leading down to an underground chapel. The cathedral has recently undergone a very thorough restoration and absolutely sparkles.
The cathedral has daily services using both the Book of Common Prayer and the Australian Prayer Book. It maintains the tradition of evensong with a choir of men and boys.
Perth, in Western Australia, is the country's fourth largest city. It enjoys hot, dry winters and cool but pleasant summers, the temperature having fallen below the freezing point only once on record. St George's is in the centre of Perth. The town hall in nearby and the governor's residence (another brick Victorian creation) is across the road. The cathedral seems to be rather stranded on a busy road and is now surrounded by office buildings with limited open space from which to view it. The city library is next door.
Almost everyone was there except the Archbishop of Sydney! Presiding over the consecration and the eucharist was the Most Revd Dr Roger Herft, Archbishop of Perth. The sermon was delivered by the Most Revd Dr Phillip Aspinall, Primate of Australia and Archbishop of Brisbane. Also in attendance were the Most Revd Dr Philip Freier, Archbishop of Melbourne; the Most Revd Jeffrey William Driver, Archbishop of Adelaide; the Very Rev Dr John Shepherd, Dean of Perth; the Revd Canon Tony Murray-Feist, precentor; and all of the cathedral's clerical and lay canons. In the three processions were many diocesan bishops and visiting bishops and clergy, including area deans and archdeacons, ordinands, deacons and parish clergy, episcopal chaplains, retired archdeacons, bishops, and archbishops (including the Most Revd Dr Peter Carnley, who as archbishop of Perth officiated at the first ordination of women priests, including Kay Goldsworthy); the Rt Revd Victoria Matthew, Bishop of Christchurch (a woman, please note); the chancellor and deputy chancellor of the diocese in full court dress; various acolytes, vergers, thurifers and crucifers; as well as the clerical and lay presenters for the new bishop. Also there were the elders of the Noongar people, whose "welcome to country" ritual began the service; members of other Christian faiths including a Benedictine abbot, the representative of the Uniting Church, and a Buddhist monk. The choir of men and boys was directed by Joseph Nolan, the master of the choristers. The organ was played by Mr Stewart Smith.
What was the name of the service?The Consecration of Kay Maree Goldsworthy, Priest, as Bishop in the Church of God.
How full was the building?
The cathedral nearly exploded, I would say. All pews were full. I arrived 45 minutes early and even then I had to stand up the back. Some estimates indicated 800 people; I would put it nearer to 1,000.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
I was met at the west door by a girl from an Anglican school who gave me the order of service. To get to the door, I passed through the smoke from an aboriginal smoking ritual, of which more below. Some lucky souls had tickets and were conducted to reserved pews. I didn't get to stray far from the west door.
Was your pew comfortable?
A pew? I wish! I stood up at the west door, but by the end of the service I was squatting on the floor, which was actually worse than standing. It was all very uncomfortable.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
It was hard to hear oneself think in there! The cathedral veritably throbbed with activity as ushers and vergers tried to accommodate the late arrivals, camera crews and journalists readied themselves, and the congregation roared with conversation. And still people poured through the doors.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
They were spoken by the elders of the Noongar people in their own language. The service began with an aboriginal smoking ceremony, an ancient custom involving the burning of various native plants to produce smoke, believed to have cleansing properties and the power to ward off bad spirits. Elders of the Noongar people entered the cathedral to the sound of didgeridoos (indigenous wooden pipes). Gradually the noise of the didgeridoos blended with the sound of the organ and the clergy processions entered through the wreaths of smoke which billowed into the cathedral from outside and which blended with the incense. It was highly atmospheric.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
A printed order of service contained the liturgy (adapted from the Book of Common Prayer service for the consecration of bishops) with hymn texts (without melody line) and the setting for the ordinary of the mass, which was sung to the Celebration Mass by Phillip Matthias for cantor, choir and congregation. The order of service contained full lists of which clergy comprised which procession (very helpful for a Mystery Worshipper!) and a preface explaining the significance of the episcopacy and the apostolic succession.
What musical instruments were played?
Pipe organ. St George's actually has three pipe organs, all traditional instruments. One is a small continuo organ, but there is a large organ in the west gallery and a choir organ in a loft in the chancel. These last two are separate instruments, but electronic override means that they can be played as one instrument, as indeed happened at this service. The organ accompanied congregational hymn singing, plainsong chanting, and the choir's anthems by Parry, Handel and Palestrina.
Did anything distract you?
Mainly where I had to stand and crouch. The large ornate pillar which held up the organ loft was in my line of vision, until I became ruthless and pushed my way in front of some people. By the end of the service my feet were very tired, so I tried sitting on the floor. But this was amazingly unpleasant – the floor was cold and hard and I lost all circulation in my legs.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
As high as one can get without going into orbit. The highest ritual, of course, surrounded the actual moment of consecration. As the archbishop, choir and congregation chanted the Veni Sancte Spiritus, the new bishop prostrated herself on the floor, and as the archbishop prayed over her, two deacons held a gold embossed Bible above her head as a symbol of the primacy of the scriptures under which she would teach. There were many genuflections all round as aboriginal ceremony merged with Anglican ritual. However, it took the new bishop a few moments to find a comfortable position on the floor. All in all, the impression was of church traditions being thrown open to a new age in the midst of very traditional and quite opulent ritual.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – Archbishop Aspinall steered a scholarly course through a highly politically charged subject. He spoke in a very measured voice, but laid peculiar stress on certain words. For instance, he managed to pronounce "Thursday" as a three syllable word. While most of the sermon was on the significance of consecrating a woman to the episcopate, I thought he spent a little too long explaining why the service took place on a Thursday rather than the Sunday called for in the Book of Common Prayer.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Naturally his sermon was about the meaning of the consecration of a woman bishop, which he noted was the "breaking of the stained glass ceiling." He opined that many people would see importance in Bishop Goldsworthy's appointment. However, it more deeply signifies women being brought fully into the ministry. The consecration of a bishop transcends earthly concerns over gender equality.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Where do I start? Mostly, this was history in the making and the moment where the mitre was placed on Bishop Goldsworthy's head wasn't so much heavenly as electrifying. In a different sense, the address by the chancellor when the Archbishop of Perth called for the authority for consecration to be read was quite captivating. The chancellor, a QC, explained in great detail the legal and constitutional basis for the consecration, especially the amendment to the Constitution of the Anglican Church of Australia that allowed the consecration to proceed. Normally it would have been laboriously tedious, but behind the legal dryness was a clear sense of quiet revolution, as the chancellor explained the legal means by which a woman could become a bishop. It was all very momentous.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Mostly there was the anxiety that in the event of a bomb scare we would all have been crushed to death in trying to evacuate the cathedral. This is no exaggeration. The service some years ago when the first women priests in Australia were to be ordained was brought to a halt by a maniac threatening to blow up St Paul's Cathedral in Melbourne. I seriously anticipated that there would be some attempt to halt or generally disrupt the service. I saw in the papers the next day how relieved cathedral authorities were that no threats had been made. On a more mundane level, a man behind me sang all the congregational responses and hymns very enthusiastically but had an astonishing voice: it was not only disastrously out of tune, it also seemed to detach itself from the wider body of sound and float right into my ear. It spoilt my enjoyment of and participation in the sung parts of the service.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I was swept out of the cathedral on a tide of people. With movement like this, any attempt to stand around looking lost would have resulted in my being crushed.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
By the time the service finished, it was well and truly past 9.00pm, and I had to walk back to my hotel through some very dark and rather intimidating streets. So I left and didn't stay for the drinks in the governor's residence!
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
10 – It is really very hard to say. The service was overwhelmingly atmospheric and the whole event was quite heady, a combination of worshipping in a cathedral pulsating with people while history was being made. But very few services are like this. I doubt the consecration of a male bishop would have quite the same atmosphere.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Rather it made me excited to be an Anglican.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
All of it really. The occasion was inexpressibly momentous as Australia's Anglicans gained their first woman bishop. Most of all I will remember the palpable excitement, not a sensation one encounters very often in church.