St Alban's Cathedral, Pretoria, South Africa

St Alban's Cathedral, Pretoria, South Africa


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Mystery Worshipper: Extrospecteur
Church: St Alban's Cathedral
Location: Pretoria, South Africa
Date of visit: Sunday, 25 January 2009, 7:30am

The building

A large brown stone building. The chancel dates from 1910 and is the work of the English architect Sir Herbert Baker, whose beautifully designed buildings grace many South African towns and cities. Work on the remainder of the cathedral (nave, cloisters and tower) did not get underway until 1955. The interior is rather plain for the most part, devoid of statues or candles, although there is a nice bust of Archbishop Desmond Tutu at the back.

The church

It has seen its share of interesting moments. In 1978, Archbishop Tutu stated from the pulpit of St Alban's that the Holy Spirit is not limited to Christianity, and that the Holy Spirit shines through Mahatma Gandhi, a Hindu. At the height of the anti-apartheid movement, the cathedral served as a rallying point for numerous demonstrations and marches. Today the cathedral is a favoured venue for choral and symphonic concerts.

The neighborhood

Pretoria is one of South Africa's three capital cities, the others being Cape Town and Bloemfontein. Each is the seat of one branch of the government: executive, legislative and judicial, respectively. The cathedral is right in the middle of the Pretoria central business district, the traditional centre of government and commerce, although today most corporate offices, businesses, shops and government departments huddle together in the malls of the city's sprawling suburbs. Predictably the neighbourhood was fairly quiet at this time on a Sunday morning.

The cast

I think the priest who led the service was the Revd Leonard P. Nyakale, assisted by two others whose names I didn't catch.

What was the name of the service?

Holy Eucharist (said).

How full was the building?

Given the time of the service, the numbers were fairly small and sensibly a side chapel was used, which was full by the time the service started. Chairs had to be fetched to accommodate latecomers. The congregation were a refreshing mix of ages and races.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

I was fairly early, and no one greeted me personally, though a deacon (perhaps) did say hello to me in passing on entering the cathedral. I helped myself to the books and leaflets arranged at the entrance to the side chapel. After I had taken up my seat at the back, one of the attendants asked me if I would please use the draw-strings to open the high window behind me.

Was your pew comfortable?

The pew wasn't too bad, though after 30 minutes the day was already getting warm, and inevitably my shirt was starting to stick to the back.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Silent, calm and intimate, as the chapel is not large.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Good morning, and welcome to our service."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The books on the table were The Holy Bible, An Anglican Prayer Book, and Songs of Fellowship, which I assumed (mistakenly) that I would not need, as this was a "said eucharist."

What musical instruments were played?

There were no instruments - the singing was unaccompanied, and led by a single cantor in the congregation. Though a said eucharist, there was singing at the peace, the communion and at the end.

Did anything distract you?

Once near the end there was the ubiquitous Nokia tune from somebody's mobile, and also there seemed to be some departure from the order in the Prayer Book, which caused a certain amount of page rustling (from me, at least!). And I was surprised to encounter another version of the Lord's Prayer that I was unfamiliar with (would be nice to standardise this one day!). Also, as the chapel was quite full, I found it difficult to take notes without being observed.

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

The service was fairly faithfully traditional, but no bells or incense, so it was all quite different from my home church, which is high Anglo-Catholic. However, there was some clapping at the end - about which more later.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

14 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

7 – Well crafted and scholarly, whilst quite conversational and friendly. No fire and brimstone, thankfully.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Following the gospel reading (Mark 1:14-20 I will make you fishers of men), the sermon elaborated on how God calls on us to proclaim our faith in whatever our walk of life, and calls people in different ways. There is scope of demonstrating our Christianity whatever our walk of life.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

Overall the service followed familiar format and words, with a few unfamiliar elements, one of which was the far more enthusiastic sharing of the peace than I have seen in other churches. I think everyone was trying to offer peace with everyone else (certainly the priest was) and it contained more genuine warmth than most of the European churches I have experienced, Anglican or Catholic. There was a certain amount of hugging and kissing, but this seemed only to be amongst friends.

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

Well, the other place is going a bit far, but I have to confess to being a bit taken aback at the invitation at the very end: Would any visitors please stand up and introduce themselves. I had not experienced this before, and had to resist dashing for the door. So I spoke up briefly, but I think a more shy individual could have been rather discomfited by the experience. (I am happy to report that I did not divulge my agent identity, nor the location of the Ship's secret headquarters.) After the visitors, those with a birthday were invited to reveal themselves also, and were treated to a clappy a cappella round of Happy Birthday. Another mild annoyance was my failure to pick up a copy of Songs of Fellowship, and hence my inability to join in the singing, of which admittedly there was not much.

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

I lurked about the cathedral but no one approached me.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Regrettably, a prior engagement meant I couldn't stay for this, but after-service tea and coffee were available, which seemed to be standard supermarket fare, served in sturdy earthenware cups.

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

7 – The service had a pleasant and welcoming atmosphere. Personally I prefer a slightly more high-church tradition – incense, bells and candles – but this was perfectly acceptable.

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

Yes. Particularly refreshing was the genuine warmth evident in the sharing of peace, and the range of ages and races present.

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

I think I will remember most the slight panic of suddenly having to stand up in front of strangers and explain myself; not because it was particularly unpleasant, but because I had not experienced it before in a church.

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