Exeter Cathedral, Exeter, Devon, England


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Exeter Cathedral
Location: Exeter, Devon, England
Date of visit: Wednesday, 27 November 2019, 5:30pm

The building

Photo: ©David Iliff and used under license The Cathedral Church of Saint Peter in Exeter is a masterpiece of Decorated Gothic. Dating from around 1300, it replaced a Norman cathedral, retaining the Norman towers. The Decorated tracery makes geometry sing. The stone carving is infinitely inventive and witty. The bishop's throne extends this exuberance to wood carving. There are some good tombs too.

The church

The cathedral has temporarily suspended its entrance fee, asking for donations instead. I feel so strongly about paying to go into churches that I simply waved a card that I had been given on a previous occasion. Once in, I forgot all antagonism because the building is beautifully kept, with a deep silence in the Lady chapel and friendly vergers. Tourists are welcomed and services go on all round them.

The neighborhood

Exeter has homeless people, as most English cities do at the moment. The cathedral green has a Christmas market selling expensive tat. No one was buying when I was there. The cathedral is one of a very few old buildings left standing.

The cast

Clergy, vergers and choir.

What was the name of the service?

Choral Evensong (Book of Common Prayer).

How full was the building?

The stalls in the quire were less than half full. The congregation might have been double the number of the choir (12).

Did anyone welcome you personally?

No welcome, which would have been quite out of place. People drifted into the quire and sank into prayer, or admired the scene, or both.

Was your pew comfortable?


How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Silence in the quire. Chatter from the nave, where people were putting up Christmas trees and tourists were enjoying themselves. These two worlds co-existed quite happily.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

‘O Lord, open thou our lips’ (sung by cantor).

What books did the congregation use during the service?

In the stalls were the Book of Common Prayer; The Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version; the New English Hymnal; Common Worship. No books were mentioned, but the Prayer Book was useful for following the psalms.

What musical instruments were played?

None. The cathedral boasts three working organs, the grand organ being housed in a case dating from 1665 that the cathedral’s website calls ‘one of the most distinctive and striking organ cases ever built,’ but all three remained silent this evening. The choir and clergy with vergers processed in while keeping silence. Even so, the entire service was beautifully sung, unaccompanied, by the choir.

Did anything distract you?

Wondering who Andrew Parnell was. He composed the anthem and he was introduced, but I didn't hear that bit. The anthem was very good and had a medieval heft to it (at least to my ears). In fact, though, he is still alive.

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

Perfectly traditional.

Exactly how long was the sermon?


Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The choir sang beautifully throughout, but the psalms were especially memorable (to an Anglican chant I did not recognise).

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

The contrast between the perfection of the service and the horrors of the world outside.

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

I didn't. Nor did anyone else.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?


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

10 — Please have another organ holiday when I next come.

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

Extremely grateful that services like this still go on.

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

No organ.

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