St Giles' Cathedral, Edinburgh

St Giles' Cathedral, Edinburgh, Scotland


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Mystery Worshipper: Diapason
Church: St Giles' Cathedral
Location: Edinburgh, Scotland
Date of visit: Sunday, 31 August 2008, 11:00am

The building

A prominent feature of the Edinburgh skyline, St Giles is also known as the High Kirk of Edinburgh. Its origins go back to a simple parish church built in 1130. Over the years that simple building, which probably started as merely a nave, acquired a chancel and aisles along each side, plus transepts and a tower over the crossing. Around 1500 the tower was heightened and a stone crown added to its top, thus forming the highly distinctive hollow-crown landmark that we know today. By 1581 the building housed three different Reformed congregations, and internal walls were built to separate the areas they used. St Giles has been called a cathedral since 1635, when William Forbes became the first Scottish Episcopal bishop of the new diocese of Edinburgh, with St Giles as his seat. By 1800 the cathedral was in a poor state of repair. It was now divided into four churches, plus a meeting house for the general assembly, a police office, and a fire engine house! Between 1871 and 1883, major restoration of the interior removed the internal walls and returned the space to the more unified (if still complex) plan we see today. Renovations continued throughout the 20th century, including the addition of a chapel for the Knights of the Thistle. Seating is arranged around the holy table, with some box pews but mainly loose seating. Seats in the old chancel area face west rather than east. In the south transept facing north toward the sanctuary is a choir area.

The church

St Giles is sometimes regarded as the mother church of Presbyterianism, and has been one of Edinburgh's religious focal points for approximately a thousand years. It is the Church of Scotland parish church for part of Edinburgh's Old Town. Five services are held every Sunday, as well as daily services and special services for state and civic occasions. St Giles' senior minister, the Very Revd Gilleasbuig Macmillan, has held that post since 1973, and is also dean of the Thistle and a chaplain-in-ordinary to Her Majesty The Queen.

The neighborhood

St Giles lies on the Royal Mile Edinburgh, about two thirds the way up from the palace of Holyroodhouse and the castle. The Royal Mile is the popular name for the streets that form the main thoroughfare of the Old Town. Around the cathedral are a wide variety of shops, pubs and restaurants. Fronting the west end of the building are the old Parliament House and the Registry office.

The cast

The Revd Dr Hilary Smith, assistant minister, led the service. The preacher was the Revd Dr Paul Middleton, who was visiting from the University of Wales Lampeter. Peter Backhouse, the cathedral's assistant organist, and Wayne Weaver, organ scholar in residence, both presided at the organ.

What was the name of the service?

Morning worship with choir and sermon

How full was the building?

Difficult to tell. St Giles could seat hundreds of worshippers, but I'd say 150 or so were in attendance.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

A sidesperson smiled and asked if I was there for the service – as there were some tourists mulling about! The lady I was sitting next to in the pew gave me a hearty handshake and said, "Nice to see you today."

Was your pew comfortable?

Traditional box pew with cushion – adequately padded!

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Very quiet and austere – a surprise given all the bustle with tourists at the main door. The organist played voluntaries by Stanley and Handel.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

The cathedral choir sang the anthem Holy is the True Light by Michael Harris, the cathedral's head organist and master of the music. Then the Revd Dr Smith said, "Good morning and welcome to St Giles."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Church Hymnary, Third Edition (CH3) and standard Church of Scotland service sheet.

What musical instruments were played?

Pipe organ, an instrument built in 1992 by the Austrian firm of Rieger Orgelbau incorporating two pedal stops from the previous organ.

Did anything distract you?

The bustle of tourists. They were asked to respect the service that was in progress, but they still mulled about.

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

Very stiff upper lip as you'd expect from St Giles' Cathedral. It was very reverent, if not a bit staged, but took a natural progression. The service followed a traditional order, with collect, preces, and sung psalm and anthem.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

15 minutes – seemed longer!

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

5 – The Revd Dr Middleton tried to start with a joke, but it was wasted on those who had not been present at the 10.00am holy communion service. His sermon was very lecture-like (he is, after all, a university lecturer). He kept moving away from the fixed microphone, which was rather annoying.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

He started off explaining how the revised common lectionary is set for use in all churches if they want, and how it is hoped that the whole church will be reading the same texts, thus creating a unity approach. After that he lost me!

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The choir was heavenly – their sung psalm and anthem were divine.

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

At the beginning of the service, the choir and clergy processed in, singing the hymn "My God, how wonderful thou art" (to the tune of Westminster). The choir walked around the nave and then down the aisle to the choir stalls. As their distance from the organ varied, they became more and more out of sync with the organ, to say nothing of the congregation! With everyone all at sixes and sevens, I ended up being the only person singing in my pew!

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

The general direction of the people flow was out the main door, so I followed suit.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

It was announced that the lower aisle restaurant was open for light lunch and snacks after the service.

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

5 – A service such as this, steeped in history with a full musical treatment, is fantastic. The sermon lost me, though. I'd like to go back to hear the cathedral's regular clergy preach. But based on today, I'd just go back for the music!

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

Yes. It was a very reverent service and had some very tender moments, especially with the music you would expect to hear in a cathedral.

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

The moving choir!

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