Christ Church Cathedral, Newcastle, NSW (Interior)

Christ Church Cathedral, Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Christ Church Cathedral
Location: Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia
Date of visit: Sunday, 17 August 2014, 9:30am

The building

a cruciform Victorian Gothic style building with a tower over the central crossing. A survivor of the Japanese submarine attack of World War II and the 1989 Newcastle Earthquake, which had an epicentre approximately 14 km southwest of the cathedral, the building is now a fully restored masterpiece and stands tall and proud on a hill overlooking Newcastle and its surrounds. As well as some stunning stained glass windows, there are some beautiful sculptures and paintings throughout the building. The cathedral also houses Newcastle's principal war memorial and memorabilia.

The church

Quoting from their website: "We are a servant community, offering pastoral care and seeking to make a positive difference to life in our city." There are three eucharists plus choral evensong each Sunday, and morning prayer, eucharist and evening prayer each weekday.

The neighborhood

As an important industrial and mining centre for much of its history, Newcastle has not been immune from the vagaries of economic downturns. The mainstays of Newcastle's economy today are Hunter New England Area Health Service, the University of Newcastle, and the National Stock Exchange of Australia. Nor has Newcastle been spared by natural disasters such as earthquakes and storms. The cathedral stands on a hill, 70m above sea level, and can been seen from a long way away – both land and sea. It is a very reassuring sight.

The cast

The Dean of Newcastle, The Very Revd Stephen Williams, presided and preached. He was supported by two other clergy members, one male and one female.

What was the name of the service?

Choral Eucharist

How full was the building?

There were between 40 and 50 people, mostly regulars. I think I was the only visitor. There were four baptisms due to take place after this service, whose families are regulars and who would swell the normal congregation to about 60-70 all told.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

No, but I was with someone who has recently moved to Newcastle (although at present she is not a regular churchgoer) and we were chatting as we arrived, so we must have looked like we didnt need any help. There were people having coffee in the porch as we arrived, who all smiled cheerily at us. Immediately as we entered the building, two ladies handed out hymn books and pew leaflets.

Was your pew comfortable?

The cathedral has lovely dark wooden pews, with the most beautiful set of kneelers I have ever seen (I later discovered that they had been made by members of the Mothers Union). But the wooden pews became increasingly uncomfortable as the service progressed.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Very comfortable, with people happily greeting each other as they came in.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Welcome, everybody, to this celebration of Mary, Mother of the Lord."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Together in Song: Australian Hymn Book II, a printed service booklet, and a pew sheet.

What musical instruments were played?

A really good organ, a 1906 opus of Norman & Beard, rebuilt in 1963 by JW Walker & Sons and again recently refurbished. It was played very well by one of the cathedrals two organ scholars.

Did anything distract you?

There was more incense than I have ever experienced in my life! At one point the clergy and choir disappeared into a massive cloud of smoke from the thurible. Lots of bowing to each other, which I am not sure I like.

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

The actual words and format of the service were completely familiar to a worshipper such as myself from a small Surrey parish: fairly standard Anglican common worship, with sung Gloria and Kyrie. A little on the high side for me, with the incense and rather too much bowing.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

7 minutes.

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

8 – Dean Stephen Williams was a confident and entertaining speaker.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Christian iconography has produced millions of images of Mary seated on a throne. She in turn has Christ enthroned upon her knee. The throne in these icons is symbolic of the throne of Solomon, of wisdom. In Jamess gospel, we hear that Godly wisdom is necessary in harmonious family relationships. Job talks of a life that is ordered in a godly way, exemplified by Solomon, who prayed for wisdom and not riches. In the iconography, Jesus is not depicted as a baby but more often as a tiny man: learned, thoughtful and intelligent. So, Mary, in the pictures, is a throne for the incarnation of the wisdom of God. Mary is the link between the Old and new Testament. The world needs wisdom now. In the gospel reading for today (Luke 2:1-7 – Luke's account of the Nativity) we have had a little dose of Christmas, and it reminds us that we should always be ready for Christs arrival. We are all called to become thrones for Christ. And God comes to us just as we are: to the shambles we have made of his world.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The wonderful organ playing and beautiful singing from their choir (approximately 20, mostly adults). As a keen music fan, member of church choir and with a son currently a lay clerk in a UK cathedral, I very much count music as "my thing." I find it hard to worship without it, so when it is done as well as it is here in Newcastle, it really makes a service very special.

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

There wasnt anything much to dislike very intensely. However, the amount of incense was a bit of an issue for me, personally, as an asthmatic, and had it gone on for much longer I might have had to have left early.

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

We were greeted warmly by several members of the regular community. Dean Stephen Williams seemed keen to say hello, so we chatted for a few minutes.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There were tea and coffee, but we had a lunchtime appointment with family, so after a quick chat with the dean, we were off.

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

8 – I would like to have compared this service to a simple, parish service in my family members suburb, but if this was all that was available, I would have been made to feel very welcome and would have got over my astonishment at clouds of the incense.

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

I definitely felt glad to be a Christian! Its always good to see a church building clearly busy and in regular use. The pew leaflet was full to bursting with news of other services and events so there is a lot going on.

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

The incense, and the very warm welcome.

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