Portsmouth Cathedral, Portsmouth, Hampshire, England

Portsmouth Cathedral, Portsmouth, Hampshire, England


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Portsmouth Cathedral
Location: Portsmouth, Hampshire, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 30 May 2010, 8:00pm

The building

The oldest part of the cathedral was built as a chapel for the Augustinian canons of Southwick Priory at the end of the 12th century and dedicated to St Thomas à Becket. Only the chancel and transepts of the original building remain. The old tower and nave were taken down toward the end of the 17th century and replaced by new structures. Major restoration work took place around the turn of the 20th century. The church was enlarged during the 1930s but this work was interrupted by World War II, not to resume until 1990. It was finally consecrated in 1991 in the presence of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. The ring of bells was augmented by a further two bells in March 2010, making Portsmouth one of the select few churches in the south of England that boast a ring of twelve. The nave is very spacious, light and airy. The building contains many maritime elements; noteworthy among these are the original weathervane, a barque (sailing ship) of gold dated 1710, and an oak cross dated 1927 from the HMS Victory, along with memorial windows and plaques commemorating recent naval disasters.

The church

St Thomas was a parish church serving the needs of a seafaring community. It became the cathedral of the newly created diocese of Portsmouth in 1927. There are daily acts of worship. The cathedral is linked to St Anselm's Cathedral in Sunyani, Ghana, and supports training of clergy and lay readers there as well as the Anglican schools. There is a well-stocked shop housed within the cathedral selling spiritual literature and gifts, and served by friendly staff.

The neighborhood

The cathedral is in old Portsmouth, a delightful area that is a few minutes' walk from the seafront with its historic fortifications dating back to Tudor times, the ruined old garrison church, and the naval dockyard with treasures such as HMS Victory (Lord Nelson's flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar), HMS Warrior (the Royal Navy's first ironclad ocean-going armoured battleship), and the Mary Rose (King Henry VIII's favourite ship). Also close by is the town's newest development, Gunwharf Quays, a collection of shops and waterside restaurants dominated by Spinnaker Tower, an observation tower in a shape suggesting sails billowing in the wind.

The cast

The Revd Canon Michael Tristram, pastor.

What was the name of the service?

Taizé-style Night Prayer

How full was the building?

The area set aside for this service, the chapel of St Thomas, was full, with only a few chairs remaining empty. We counted 50 people, surprisingly balanced in gender. However, there were fewer young people than we had expected, which we put down to the fact that it was half term.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

The building seemed completely deserted when we arrived, but a lady was strategically positioned with the song books in the area where the service was to be held. She was friendly when we made our way toward her. The canon nodded and smiled, but made no eye contact and had his face turned away from us.

Was your pew comfortable?

One young man sat on the stone floor in true Taizé style, while everyone else sat on the shell chairs. In the cathedral proper, the only permanent seating arrangements are modern choir stalls in addition to the more traditional ones in the quire. Chairs are set out in quantity only when required, thus enhancing the immense sense of space.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

The altar and some surfaces had been set up with lots of candles. Not many people had arrived yet, and it was so quiet that even clearing one's throat was almost embarrassing. However, as more people arrived the atmosphere changed, and there was quiet chatter in front of us, though on the whole it was a meditative silence. A recording played a tune from the (latest?) Taizé chants CD – a little too loud for my taste.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Laudate omnes, laudate Dominum" (Sing praise all people, sing praise to the Lord), the chant initiated by the canon and taken up by the congregation. This was followed by "Welcome to this Taizé-style Night Prayer."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The colourfully bound Chants de Taizé 2005/Songs from Taizé 2005 and a service sheet.

What musical instruments were played?

None. The chant was unaccompanied.

Did anything distract you?

In the silence just before the beginning of the service, a service sheet fluttered to the floor and remained there for the duration of the service. During the meditation the clock struck the quarter hour, but as it was muted by the distance this was quite pleasant. I found the readings and speaking from the back rather distracting, possibly for no other reason than that it "came out of the blue."

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

It was very dignified, monastic in character, with the quiet chants permeating the act of worship. No standing up or sitting down during the service. The canon led the service from the back of the church. Toward the end, those who wished to do so filed past the canon, who by then had made it to the front and was handing out lighted candles that could be placed on the Peace Globe, based on a similar one in Stockholm (see picture).

Exactly how long was the sermon?

No sermon.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The singing voice of the canon and his descant in one of the chants. The prayer candles almost completely filling the globe.

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

The immediate and restless breaking up after the final song, people rushing out as though the dinner was burning. It all but destroyed the atmosphere of peace that characterises this style of service.

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

There was no one left. An offering plate had been placed on a beautiful cruciform font near the door.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?


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

5 – As this was not the regular style of worship and the congregation possibly not typical, this is hard to comment on. Personally I'd prefer Taizé-style in the open air or a tent.

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

I felt almost like a member of a monastic community, though a novice.

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

More than one: the descant of the canon, the chap sitting on the floor, the peace globe, and the offering plate on the font.

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