Portsmouth Cathedral, Portsmouth, England

Portsmouth Cathedral, Portsmouth, England


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Mystery Worshipper: Roundabout
Church: Portsmouth Cathedral
Location: Portsmouth, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 30 November 2008, 6:00pm

The building

There is an impressive 3D tour on the cathedral's website, which does more justice to the building than I can! The cathedral began in 1180 as a chapel dedicated to Thomas à Becket. The building survived incendiary attacks by the French during the 100 Years War, a papal interdict, and cannon fire during the English Civil War. Charles II had parts of the church rebuilt between 1691 and 1693 and it was during this period that the main tower was built. The cupola was added a decade later. Extensive repairs were carried out over a two year period beginning in 1902, and in 1930 an enlargement program was begun after the Diocese of Portsmouth was created and the church became its cathedral. Today's building retains only some of its early medieval design. To the west of the original back of the church lies the new nave, of relatively short length but wide enough to accommodate chairs arranged in a semi-circle. The seats in the centre of the nave afford a view through the crossing (with organ loft above) to the long medieval chancel. Built in light stone with sweeping Norman-style arches, the nave is remarkably self contained – it would, I suppose, be possible to have two entirely separate services going on in the chancel and the nave, such is the separation between the two. The cathedral's tower is reminiscent of a lighthouse – fitting for a city so intricately linked to the sea.

The church

The Cathedral Church of St Thomas of Canterbury is both the mother church of the Diocese of Portsmouth and a parish church in its own right. Their website includes information about its parish groups, including Sunday school, a mothers' and toddlers' group, youth club, guides and welcomers, choir, bell ringers, and a needlecraft group, among others. I mean it positively when I say that entering the cathedral feels more akin to entering a parish church than a cathedral, which in my experience can seem stuffy and museum-like even during services.

The neighborhood

The cathedral is in old Portsmouth, close to the docks from where departed such famous ships as the Mary Rose, Henry VIII's favourite ship, and HMS Victory, commanded by Vice-Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson during the Battle of Trafalgar, and from whose decks Lord Nelson issued his famous order: "England expects that every man will do his duty." Once upon a time the area was the first port of call for sailors looking for traditional pursuits whilst on shore leave, but now the Georgian houses have been politely gentrified and exclusive new-builds are sold for eye-watering prices. Portsmouth's Spinnaker Tower and Gunwharf Quays, symbol of the city's recent renaissance, are within walking distance.

The cast

The service was led by the dean, the Very Revd David Brindley, in the presence of the Rt Revd Dr Kenneth Stevenson, Bishop of Portsmouth, who gave the final blessing. Also present were a full crowd of cathedral clergy who primarily attended in choir, as most of the readings were given by lay persons.

What was the name of the service?

Preparing the Way: An Advent Procession with Lessons and Carols

How full was the building?

The central areas of the nave, where I was sitting, were full, probably around 120 people. However, there were more people sitting in the quire, and with considerable numbers of clergy and choir, I would guess that there were at least twice that number in the cathedral overall.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

A sign outside the cathedral announced "Welcome", and beyond the inner door (understandably closed on such a foul night outside) a sidesperson handed me an order of service and said hello, pointing me to her colleague who was handing out candles with a friendly smile.

Was your pew comfortable?

It was a padded seat and very comfortable.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Until two minutes before the service started, all that could be heard were whispered murmurings echoing between walls. Then the choir climbed the stairs up to the gallery above the west door, and sadly the sound of many pairs of feet traipsing up the stairs became particularly audible. The remarkable acoustics of the building meant that every shuffle of the choristers' music could be heard by the congregation down below. But this really is a relatively minor irritation.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

A printed leaflet produced especially for the service. It included an informative introduction both about the season of Advent and the liturgy for the evening. It also included all the rubrics, which were integral to the progress of the service.

What musical instruments were played?

The cathedral's organ accompanied its choir, who were in fine form. The organ, an opus of John Nicholson & Co. of Worcester, was built in 1851 for Manchester Cathedral and moved to Plymouth in 1994, where it occupies the restored elaborate original case dating from 1718.

Did anything distract you?

A minor but necessary distraction was the shadow cast by the conductor's movements for as long as the choir were singing from the west gallery, which was one of the few areas of the cathedral which were lit at the beginning of the service. I was also somewhat distracted by the six sidespeople who stood by the door for the duration of the service; this seemed a little excessive, particularly as the layout of the building meant that it was some way away from the main congregation seating areas.

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

In a nutshell, the service was a well choreographed cathedral worship, well in keeping with the English choral tradition and drawing on both ancient and modern sources. The service started at the east end (although the choir was at the west) in near darkness. As the service progressed, the clergy and choir moved into the quire and then into the nave, before ending at the west door. The service was a mix of anthems, congregational carols, readings, prayers and poetry, all with a strong Advent theme. All the congregation were given candles, which were symbolically lit, and good use was made of the cathedral's space, in terms of progression around the building, multi-location singing and the excellent lighting profiles available within the building. The cathedral's peace globe, a spherical wire sculpture with space for many candles, was lit during the climax of the service whilst the congregation sang "Christ is the world's true Light." In terms of celebrating Advent, the worship was spot on.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

There was no sermon.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

First of all, being part of a service celebrating Advent for its own value, rather than as an obstacle to get around to get to Christmas. But in particular, the music – the reason I'd travelled around 30 miles to attend – was heavenly, and I particularly enjoyed the Bogoroditsye Dyevo (Ave Maria) by the Estonian minimalist composer Arvo Pärt, which I hadn't heard before.

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

It may have been intentional that the microphone was not turned on for some of the early parts of the service from the east end of the cathedral, but sadly it made it rather difficult to follow some of the initial parts. Oh, and holding a candle for so long meant it was inevitable that I'd get hot wax on my hands at some point. I'm that sort of person.

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

The service guide instructed us to "carry our candles out of the cathedral as a light for the future." However, I was not unusual in handing mine back in. The very friendly sidesperson invited me to keep it, but I said they would probably make more use of it than I would, and besides, I'd already done myself an injury on it! Someone said good evening to me and complimented me on my singing, and a number of people smiled and said hello as we made our way to the doorway. However, with a service such as this comprised (I imagine) of a large proportion of visitors, I'm not surprised that no one struck up more of a conversation as I lingered around the bookstall by the exit. Everyone leaving the cathedral was given a copy of the winter edition of The Letter, a well printed newsletter. Should I have wished to make more contact with the cathedral, this provided me with everything I needed to know.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There was nothing provided at the cathedral, although Portsmouth is blessed with many fine pubs (that naval connection again) for those wishing to partake of after-service refreshments.

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

9 – It's about a 40 minute drive from home, so not really feasible, but as an occasional treat for high days and holy days I'd definitely make the effort to attend here (and probably in preference to the two Anglican cathedrals which are closer to home).

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

Yes, and particularly to be part of a church that celebrates seasons so well.

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

The end of the service, with the choir singing the end of "People look east" ("Love, the Lord is on the way") apparently randomly and repeatedly as they left the building. In less capable hands it could have been a musical disaster; actually, it was a very effective way of closing the service.

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