The Cathedral Church of the Holy and Undivided Trinity, Bristol, is a very large, long, beautiful church, about 1000 years old, although construction and reconstruction of its various parts has spanned almost that length of time. It began life as an Augustinian abbey. Although only fragments of the abbey church survive, the chapter house still remains and has been called the finest example of a Norman chapter house in existence today. The cathedral has high square towers, and both old and new altars. The nave altar is octagonal in shape – I had never seen that before. The nave itself is unusual in that the aisles are the same height as the choir, making it what is called a "hall church." Common in Germany, this is rare in Britain.
There is a large staff of volunteers who care for the cathedral and keep it alive, including docents who cheerfully conduct free tours (although they welcome donations). On our visit we were impressed by the friendliness of the staff. They are keeping the cathedral alive. Worship services are open to the public, and the side chapels are available for private prayer. "Within the constraints of scheduled services" (as their website states), the cathedral, chapter house, cloister and garden are available for hire to host concerts, dinners, receptions, etc.
Bristol historically was a seagoing city, with many departures for the New World. Unfortunately this included involvement in the slave trade. The city's prosperity is reflected in its architecture; many old buildings survive but many others were bombed during World War II. The Clifton Suspension Bridge, begun in 1831 and completed in 1864, the work of the noted 19th century civil and mechanical engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, is still in use today and is one of Bristol's most recognisable landmarks.
The Rt Revd Michael Arthur Hill, Bishop of Bristol; the Revd Canon Andrew Tremlett, acting dean; the Revd Canon Wendy Wilby, canon precentor.
What was the name of the service?Eucharist of Christmas Night
How full was the building?
Absolutely full, two to three thousand people.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes. There were several people at the door, smiling and welcoming us, handing us the service booklet, and pointing where we could find seats.
Was your pew comfortable?
It was a seat, comfortable, not very large, and just in front of a monitor so that we could see everything happening if we did not view it accurately from where we sat, near the back.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
It was quiet but not silent, mainly full of adults, many of whom were looking up and around at the beauty in the cathedral.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
Three bells were rung. Then Canon Wilby spoke from the pulpit: "It is good to see you all tonight. We remember the mystery of God in a human baby. A most peaceful and blessed Christmas. Turn your candles out. (We all had candles and we used them as the choir and clergy walked in singing.) Welcome to communion. Keep silent before worship." The Christ Child was carried in and placed in the crib. The Christmas candle was blessed and placed on the altar.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
We all used specially printed booklets, 20 pages.
What musical instruments were played?
Organ and a strong choir.
Did anything distract you?
It was a distraction to have such a good view of everything. What little we couldn't see on our own, we could see on the monitor. One thing we noticed were golden angels with gold wings, holding candles, and coloured angels up on the far-away altar.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Traditional and happy. Lots of ceremony. Lots of incense. We sang carols, and the choir sang in Latin the Messe de Minuit pour Noel of the French Baroque composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier. The music was wonderful. The bishop looked resplendent in his gold mitre.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 – The bishop really wished to help us all to feel God's love for us and always to know and respond to that.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
All the best of the divine was invested in a baby. It was a vast plan of God. The baby became a bold and brave man. He suffered crucifixion, the worst form of death, yet prayed for forgiveness of those who had killed him. In the 2000 years since, countless human beings have given their lives for him. We inhabit a dark world: wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; lonely soldiers separated from their families; people who look to a quick death as an end to their suffering; parents and grandparents denied access to their offspring; unbearable poverty; those who seek asylum. St John wrote that the Light overcomes the darkness. Look in our mind's eye at that crib; it could transform us from dark to light. God sent his Son to be our salvation. The message of Christmas means we are never alone – the God who serves us is alive with us in this cathedral now. If we receive him, we become children of God, never alone, always with hope. God enters our soul and dwells in our hearts. We have no idea how much God loves us.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The wonderful singing and beauty within the cathedral.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The incense that kept whizzing around.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
We were all trying to leave all at once. The sidesmen, still pleasant and friendly, were advising people to try to leave quickly. The bishop shook my hand and wished me good cheer.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
None at all – it was early morning Christmas day.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 – Everyone who belonged to the church, whether clergy or others, were extremely friendly and welcoming. It is also a beautiful building with a fantastic history.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes – seeing symbols for Christians and hearing the love and strength of Jesus for us all.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The modern nave altar – wooden and eight sided.