Canterbury Cathedral, Kent, England

Canterbury Cathedral, Kent, England


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Mystery Worshipper: Miss Ericord
Church: Canterbury Cathedral
Location: Kent, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 4 April 2010, 3:15pm

The building

What can be said about the Cathedral and Metropolitical Church of Christ at Canterbury? Is it vast, awe-inspiring, and beautiful, the third most-visited religious building in the country (after St Pauls and Westminster Abbey). The present building is 12th century, with additions in the 14th and major repairs following the Restoration in 1660. The reader is respectfully referred to the many websites, including the Wikipedia entry and the cathedral's own website, that describe the history and architecture of the cathedral in detail and include some splendid photos. There is currently a life-sized empty rock tomb set up on the precinct grass surrounded by flowers and containing a folded white cloth. The cathedral (along with St Augustines Abbey and St Martins Church) is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The tourist entrance fee is waived if you are a pilgrim attending a service, or ask nicely. On the day I visited, the chairs had been removed from the nave and preparations were being made for a youth service the following day a stage with banners and serious mixing desk were being set up.

The church

As the seat of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the cathedral stands at the head of the Church of England and the worldwide Anglican communion. The cathedrals mission statement is "to show people Jesus." Communion, matins and evensong (choral or said) are offered daily, along with numerous special services and events such as organ recitals and art exhibitions. There is also a highly active educational department providing resources for teachers and youth groups, as well as adult retreats and theological study programmes. The Friends of the Cathedral organise fundraising events and provide services ranging from flower arrangers to "holy dusters."

The neighborhood

The area where Canterbury lies has been inhabited since prehistoric times. The Celts and the Romans knew the place well. Chaucer and Christopher Marlowe wrote of it. During the 14th century Canterbury was decimated by bubonic plague, and during World War II it suffered damage from over 10,000 German bombs. But it has survived all adversity, and today's Canterbury, about an hour and a half's drive southeast of London, is a city of 44,000 with a modern centre and two universities. The cathedral sits in a precinct comprising a study and educational centre, chapter house, gift shop, garden, library and archives, and parts of the Kings School.

The cast

The Most Revd and Rt Hon. Rowan Douglas Williams, 104th Archbishop of Canterbury, gave the blessing. Presiding at the service was the Very Revd Robert Willis, Dean of Canterbury. Altogether there were eight clergy in the procession. The cathedral choir of 16 boy choristers and 12 lay clerks (adults) was led by David Flood, cathedral organist and master of the choristers.

What was the name of the service?

Choral Evensong

How full was the building?

The service was held (as it is every day) in the quire, which I estimate seats around 300, and it was jam-packed. I was directed to a bench in front of the front row of choir stalls making it impossible to take surreptitious notes!

Did anyone welcome you personally?

No. The gate to the cathedral precinct was open, as it always is on Sundays. As mentioned, most of the nave was roped off for preparations for the following day, but if I hadnt known where to go, I imagine that I could have found someone to ask fairly easily. At the steps up to the quire, a lady was filtering out tourists from those wishing to attend the service. Ive no idea how gently it was done, as a man in front of me engaged her in conversation so I snuck around. A gentleman asked me if I was a choir parent; I was tempted to ask just how old he thought I was! He directed me to the aforementioned bench, facing the opposite side. For the next ten minutes or so, he went back and forth bringing things to my neighbours and myself: first a service sheet, then a hymn book, etc.

Was your pew comfortable?

The bench had a long cushion, but it was only a 45-minute service and we stood for the majority of it. A lady with an assistance dog was seated just behind me. Before the service, a verger came up and enquired whether the dog was comfortable!

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Fairly reserved, with the organ playing quietly and people being directed to seats.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Good evening on this Easter Sunday, and may I wish you a very happy Easter."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The New English Hymnal and a slightly tatty laminated Guide to Evensong (Book of Common Prayer). There was also a printed service sheet giving the words of the introit and anthem.

What musical instruments were played?

The cathedral organ, an 1886 Henry Willis three-manual instrument rebuilt in the late 1970s.

Did anything distract you?

I was very conscious of sitting too far to the front to be entirely comfortable.

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

Very formal, but fittingly so. There was one congregational hymn, during which a collection was taken. The organ voluntary was Bach's Prelude and Fugue in D (the "Little"), BWV 532, which received applause. I was facing the choir director, who was wonderfully expressive. The smile he gave the choristers at the end of Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus" said "Well done, boys" better than anything Ive heard said.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

There was no sermon.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

A lone choirboys voice brings tears to my eyes. The beauty of the harmonies in the choirs praise will stay with me for a good long time.

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

A lady sitting directly opposite me (i.e., on the other side of the quire) said, "Oh, isnt it bay-oo-diful!" several times during the organ voluntary despite the instruction to keep silence. I noticed after the service that shed left her umbrella behind, which I was guiltily glad about. I hope she gets rained on!

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

Nothing much. I get the impression that the vergers and guides would not deliberately approach you unless you were in some sort of distress! I therefore made the effort and approached one, who was very knowledgeable and answered all my questions (mostly about the organ, starting with "Where on earth is it?").

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There was none directly, although an outside stall was serving in the precinct. The cathedral shop advertises that its products are fairly traded.

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

8 – You could certainly attend every Sunday, but this is not a church with a congregation as such. However, for the occasional visit, it is spectacular.

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

Most definitely. Theres something to be said for taking a step out of your own church (particularly if you are heavily involved in committees, rotas, etc!) and seeing the bigger picture once in a while. This is it.

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

The hauntingly beautiful and prayerful singing of the choir.

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