Hereford Cathedral

Hereford Cathedral, Hereford, England


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Hereford Cathedral
Location: Hereford, England
Date of visit: Monday, 6 October 2014, 5:30pm

The building

The Cathedral Church of St Mary the Virgin and St Ethelbert the King is a beautiful, pink stone building overshadowing the banks of the river Wye. It is predominantly a Norman building but with later work. The 13th century treasure known as Mappa Mundi is housed here – a single sheet of vellum containing a map of the known world at the time plus drawings of the history of humankind as well as biblical and mythological illustrations. But for me the most memorable parts of the cathedral are the lovely early English Lady chapel and the dark crypt underneath. The blue colours of the medieval north transept window are beautiful. There also seem to be a lot of references made quite openly in the cathedral to Masonic symbols. The cathedral was featured in the 1984 BBC adaptation of John Masefield's fantasy children's novel The Box of Delights, which I remember as a child.

The church

From their website: "Teaching has always been an important part of the life of the cathedral, and this is continued today in lectures, adult education courses, school visits, Sunday school, and through the exhibitions." There is a full schedule of lectures and addresses on a variety of topics. They have a very strong music program, with choir school, concert choir, junior singing club and an annual diocesan choral festival, as well as noonday and evening concerts. The cathedral seems to maintain a close link with parishes in the diocese.

The neighborhood

The city of Hereford is surrounded by the Welsh Marches and border country. The cathedral is in a lovely city neighbourhood with medieval narrow streets, a green, and medieval houses. Hereford simply oozes with history everywhere you look, although a brutal ring road circumnavigates the old city.

The cast

There was no announcement, oral or printed, of who took the service.

What was the name of the service?

Weekday Choral Evensong.

How full was the building?

I turned up at 5.20 hoping to find the cathedral loo open, as the city seems to lack any open public WCs. Unfortunately everything was closed, so I had rather an uncomfortable time of it! At the start of the service there were three of us in the nave – and I was the only one with a service book. Several people came in and listened to the music and I got the impression they felt a bit of out of place. Others came in, looked lost and left. Everybody else (cathedral staff) sat in the chancel.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

No one was on hand to welcome us – no one at all! I know some people appreciate anonymity; however, a simple hello and someone at hand to show the way would have gone a long way. Some of the looks from the processional ranged from suspicious to indifferent. Would it hurt cathedral protocol to look a little less stern?

Was your pew comfortable?

It was a Victorian open backed pew. It was comfortable at first but my back started to feel a slight twinge by the end. However, they suit the building far more than boring chairs!

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

It was haunting in the evening light! The organ sounded so beautiful and timeless in this place. I felt I could have been sitting in the cathedral in another generation and hearing the same music both in the past and future. The emotions the music evoked are inexplicable. I only wish there had been a service leaflet with some information about what was being played and sung.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Good evening and welcome to choral evensong at Hereford Cathedral. Please feel free to sit during the singing of the psalms." Good advice, as the choir sang three psalms in one go!

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The Prayer Book was left out near the church door, but the other two in the congregation managed without.

What musical instruments were played?

The magnificent cathedral organ, a Henry Willis opus dating from 1892. It was modified by Willis in 1909 and again in 1933, and yet again in 1977-78 by the Durham firm of Harrison & Harrison. Major refurbishment was undertaken in 2004. The music demonstrated the organ's beauty, with some very quiet stops and then pillar shaking for other parts.

Did anything distract you?

In a cathedral building there are a million and one things to distract you. It evoked all the senses: the haunting organ music with the shadows played out on the walls from the growing twilight as the words from evensong reverberated: "Lighten our darkness we beseech thee, O Lord" and those lovely words "Defend us from all perils and dangers of the night." I couldn't help feeling the veil between generations and the past was very thin in this cathedral.

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

It was old-fashioned traditional Anglican cathedral worship: formal and professional but no incense or Anglo-Catholic ritual. The choir sang three psalms in one go and later a lovely anthem by JS Bach. The priest kept referring in his prayers to things being "Spirit filled," conjuring images of Pentecostal worship. I couldn't really picture the choirmaster and singers being slain in the Spirit – although it would be fun to see!

Exactly how long was the sermon?

There was no sermon, as it was weekday choral evensong. But I felt the music and building were the preacher – as they would have been in pre-Reformation days.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

For me it had to be the music and that sense of "for ever and ever" from the Prayer Book. I was merely a speck on the long continuum of the past and future of this building and place. The same music will be heard here long after we are gone.

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

It would be unkind, and perhaps slightly tongue in cheek, to say it was what I call "public school at worship." I got the feeling we were being sneered at by some of the choristers as they paraded down from the chancel. As a former chorister elsewhere, I am familiar with this sort of thing. I'm not really sure privilege and elitism, combined with the Masonic symbols in the cathedral, are good things. These are the sort of things that I think account for lack of bums on seats in parish churches.

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

The other two in the congregation disappeared into the shadows. I stayed at length to hear the organ recessional. The priest eventually came and stood at the back of the church but said nothing. I made the first move and said "Good evening." It would have perhaps shown some people skills for him to have asked, "Are you visiting?"

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Nothing, but not really to be expected after a weekday service.

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

8 – Clearly there is some parochial work going on here, with a Sunday school and some interest in the world outside. I found the music beautiful and a real aid to communicating with the divine. I was not worried about whether it was relevant to the modern world – because it was timeless.

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

I felt close to Christians of many different generations both before and after. The music was like a veil being drawn back. But I wish somehow that I didn't get that sense of nose in the air as the choir paraded down from the stalls.

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

I will remember the music and the building and the sense of that veil between generations and the divine being lifted. And also the fact that it is important to know where the nearest loo is before attending choral evensong!

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