Most of the Cathedral Church of the Holy and Undivided Trinity is more than 900 years old, and it would surely earn a place in a list of the ten most beautiful cathedrals of the world. Ely Cathedral originated in the 7th century when St Etheldreda founded a religious community. Work on the present cathedral began in the 11th century, and the monastic church became a cathedral in 1109. The cathedral is 517 feet long, a symphony of light coloured stone and stained glass, with a magnificent 19th century painted ceiling above the nave. One of Ely's glories is the octagonal lantern tower, built in the 14th century, which soars 170 feet above the transept. The Lady chapel, completed in 1349, is the largest in any British cathedral. Much of the original stained glass and sculpture was smashed in the iconoclasm of the Reformation; a major reglazing campaign begun in 1845 resulted in the installation of windows by the most outstanding craftsmen of the 19th century. Major restoration was also undertaken in the late 20th century.
A good deal of the cathedral's work necessarily involves providing for its 250,000 visitors a year. There are daily services of morning prayer, holy communion and evensong, the latter usually sung to the highest standards of choral music by the cathedral's lay clerks. There are also choirs of boy and girl choristers. The cathedral hosts concerts and lectures and offers special activities for children and families. Visits by school groups are encouraged. Special services are organised for diocesan events and civic associations. There is ramp-free access and wheelchair users can access all parts of the cathedral floor. An induction loop is provided, as are toilets for the disabled. The cathedral website adds: "Guide dogs, hearing dogs and assistance dogs are welcome in the cathedral at all times. Water for dogs is available."
Ely is a prosperous town of about 20,000 people 17 miles north of Cambridge. It is surrounded by well-watered land called fens, similar to marshland, which have been drained and are mostly used for agriculture. Its economic mainstay would now be tourism: apart from the cathedral, there are many historic buildings from the medieval period onward. Increasingly Ely is used by commuters to Cambridge. There is little ethnic diversity in Ely: 93 per cent of the population is white.
The preacher was the Rt Revd Louis Muvunyi, Bishop of Kigali, Rwanda, whose diocese is partnered with Ely. The celebrant was the Revd Canon Jessica Martin, one of the canons residentiary.
What was the name of the service?Sung Eucharist.
How full was the building?
The congregation were seated at the transept, on three sides around the altar. This helped counteract our awareness that beyond us the vast cathedral echoed with emptiness. I would estimate that about 150 people were present for worship.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
I was greeted with a cheery smile and given a service booklet.
Was your pew comfortable?
Yes. We each had our own seat.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
A quiet buss of anticipation.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
Canon Martin said: "Welcome to Ely Cathedral." A long list of notices followed, including one welcoming children to Messy Church at a location nearby. She ended with a call to recollection, and a brief meditative silence ensued.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The service booklet contained all that we needed. I believe it derived from Common Worship of the Church of England.
What musical instruments were played?
The cathedral organ, and the voices of the cathedral's lay clerks accompanied by the girl choristers. The present organ dates from 1908 and is by Harrison and Harrison, using some of the pipework of earlier instruments. It was refurbished in 1974-75 and completely rebuilt in 1999-2001, when restoration work on the fabric of the cathedral necessitated the organ's complete removal and reinstallation.
Did anything distract you?
Coming from a world city, I am used to churches bringing together great mixtures of races, classes and ages. Given the local demographics, my comment may be unfair, but this congregation seemed largely white and of pensionable age. (Despite the Messy Church mention I saw only three or four children being brought up at communion time.) I longed to see a few shabbily dressed people or care-worn faces. I would have felt more at home.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was formal and dignified. Everything went like clockwork. The mass setting was Josef Gabriel Rheinberger's Mass in E Flat Major, op. 109, together with his motet Meditabor in Mandatis Tuis and organ work "Phantasie" from Sonata No. 13, op. 161. Canon Martin had a wonderful style of presiding at the altar: quietly composed and prayerful, drawing us into the action without drawing attention to herself.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – Bishop Muvunyi was coming to the end of a visit to Ely with a delegation from Rwanda, so he had to thank his hosts. On the other hand, he had to preach on the gospel (Matthew 21:33-46, the parable of the wicked tenants). He combined his gracious thanks with an encouraging and sobering message.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Jesus told stories in parables so that people could remember and understand. There is so much to understand in the parable of the tenants. We are stewards of God's vineyard. God loves all people, but we are not always good stewards. Consider, for example, the Rwanda genocide of 1994. The genocide is still a painful memory, but we are building schools, roads, hospitals, and other good works, for which we thank God. But we are still in need of healing. We must not abuse God's love and trust, as the tenants in the parable abused the master's trust. God has entrusted us with the responsibility to care for the world's people. There are many challenges, but we must reach the unreached. Jesus is our last hope, but he will bless our work, and our reward is eternal life.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
A thought-provoking comment came after the sermon. Peter Wood, diocesan director of mission, interviewed two other Kigali visitors, Dorcas Uwinmaana and Antoine Rutayisire. Dorcas told us of the awesome range of work of the Mothers' Union, which included prison visiting, marriage counselling and teaching of handicrafts. Antoine explained how the theological college trained pastors with a combination of hands-on work in their parishes and time away for formal study. He mentioned the many lovely churches he had seen on this visit to Ely diocese, and of course the cathedral itself. He then wondered aloud how they could regain the fervour for Christ that had enabled all these beautiful houses of God to be built. This question seemed for a moment or two to hang in the air, implying another question: how had that fervour been lost? I had the impression that he had pricked an element of complacency in the congregation.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Nothing was actually hellish, but to my embarrassment the only negative moment was due to my own discourtesy. Near the end of the service I gave in to temptation, and from my seat I took a few photographs of the altar. I felt a firm tap on my shoulder, and the lady behind told me in steely tones that there were strict rules forbidding photography during the service. Mea culpa. I apologised immediately.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Admission to services is free, but otherwise you have to pay. Since I was there as a worshipper I did not hang around, but used my free admittance to wander around the place gawking at its splendours.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
I did not sample the coffee, but a good portion of the congregation stayed for the koffee klatch. From the hubbub I would say that a good time was had by all.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
10 – For beauty of setting and dignity of worship it deserves a 10, but if I lived locally I would want a more mixed community and less anonymity.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. Beautiful music soaring upwards in a gorgeous setting. Anglican tradition at its best.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The two rebukes. One, implicitly asking how the Church of England had become so lukewarm. The other, rebuking me for sneak photographs.