Mystery Worshipper: Strange Pilgrim
Church: Liverpool Cathedral
Location: Liverpool, England
Date of visit: Saturday, 10 October 2009, 3:00pm
The diocese was founded in 1880, but the decision to build the cathedral was not made until 1901. It is the largest cathedral in Britain (and one of the largest in the world), designed by the then 22-year-old architect Giles Gilbert Scott. He was supervised in the early stages by the elderly and distinguished GF Bodley, whose influence is strong on the design of the Lady chapel, where this service took place. It is undoubtedly impressive, but many people feel it can be rather overwhelming and lacks warmth. Although it is in the gothic style, it is unlike any mediaeval cathedral.
The usual cathedral congregation consists of a core of regulars, many commuting from the suburbs, along with a large number of visitors. Large diocesan and civic services, or regional events like this one, attract a quite different crowd. The cathedral staff are well-used to coping with such a variety of clientele. This particular service was a small part of a whole days events that included activities for children and young people as well as a more traditional pilgrimage programme, including two solemn masses, and the cathedral was full of people of all ages from all parts of the north-west of England (and probably Wales). The congregation at evensong were predominantly middle-aged and older, and almost entirely white.
The cathedral dominates its surrounding area, being situated on high ground to the east of the city centre, and just a short walk from its erstwhile Roman Catholic rival, now ecumenical partner, Cathedral of Christ the King. To the east are the elegant terraces of Georgian Liverpool, now well on the way to gentrification after years of neglect; to the south is the multi-ethnic inner-city area of Toxteth; to the west, recent housing for cathedral clergy and others, and one of the oldest Chinese communities in Europe (now graced with a massive decorated archway).
The Rt Revd Martyn Jarrett, Bishop of Beverley, presided, accompanied by the Very Revd Justin Welbyn, Dean of Liverpool, and the Revd Canon Myles Davies, canon precentor. A number of other robed clergy and servers assisted. The cathedral choir sang the music of the office and two anthems.
What was the name of the service?Solemn Evensong and Benediction for the Liverpool Walsingham Festival
How full was the building?
The Lady chapel is the size of a moderately large parish church; I would imagine it seats at least 300 people. There were no spare seats and many people were standing in the aisles.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
This service was part of a whole days programme, and I am sure that people arriving for this would have been made welcome. I was approached by a volunteer in a specially designed t-shirt and invited to light a candle before the blessed sacrament, which was exposed on the high altar, before I moved into the Lady chapel.
Was your pew comfortable?
Typical cathedral chairs with rush seats, which were very comfortable for sitting in but (understandably in the circumstances) had been pushed too closely together to allow for comfortable kneeling.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
There was an atmosphere of joy and expectancy, but also much chatting. Although the organ began to play loudly about a quarter of an hour beforehand, some people continued to chat until the service began.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
The service began with a Latin anthem that seemed to be a version of the Angelus. Hence the opening words were probably "Angelus Domini nuntiavit Mariæ" although I couldnt quite hear. The office proper began: "O Lord, open thou our lips."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
A specially produced booklet with a lovely colour photograph of Our Lady of Walsingham.
What musical instruments were played?
Organ, which is I believe a separate instrument from that in the main cathedral, but powerful nevertheless.
Did anything distract you?
The statue of Our Lady of Walsingham was set up on the other side of the altar from the cathedrals own statue of Our Lady, who is in a kneeling position. Hence it looked strangely like she was praying to herself. Also, the bell that was rung to accompany the blessed sacrament sounded just like an old-fashioned telephone, and I kept wondering who was going to answer it.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
A fascinating mix of sombre cathedral dignity and slightly po-faced but prayerful and reverent Anglo-catholicism. It was good to see (and smell!) some of rich devotional aids of the Catholic tradition in a cathedral that has often been seen as the flagship of a consciously Protestant diocese.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
There was no sermon.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Joining in the enthusiastic singing of the three hymns, and recalling that the entire life of the city and the world gained its meaning from the Presence that we worshipped on the altar and that Mary brought to birth.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Nothing as bad as that, but I felt a slight nagging guilt at hogging a seat when so many were standing. And although the Lords Prayer was printed in bold for all to join in, it was sung instead to a complicated setting by the choir.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I bumped into one or two people whom I knew. It wasnt a typical after-service socialising because mass was about to start. As with the welcome, there were plenty of volunteers on hand to ensure that nobody would feel lost.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Tea and coffee were being dispensed in paper cups, but I didnt stay as Id missed my lunch and needed slightly more encouraging sustenance.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 – If this church were to exist apart from at rare jamborees like this, I would be happy to join it. The devotion and liturgical dignity would encourage me, but I am suspicious of the underlying clericalism still apparent in the anglo-catholic movement.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Very much so. It was a welcome reminder that despite the many obituaries written on the Christian church, the Church of England and the Anglo-catholic movement, there is much life and hope around still. It was also encouraging that divisions over the ordination of women, or more long-standing tensions between Catholic and Evangelical, were peripheral compared to the joy of celebrating the incarnation.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
Liverpool Cathedral (which is probably about as big as the entire village of Walsingham) transformed into the Shrine of our Lady for the day. And the fragrant but unusual (for this venue) smell that greeted the nostrils on entering.