St George's Cathedral, Southwark, London

St George's Cathedral, Southwark, London


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Mystery Worshipper: Newman's Own
Church: St George's Cathedral
Location: Southwark, London
Date of visit: Sunday, 4 May 2008, 10:00am

The building

The original 1848 building, the work of the noted architect Augustus Welby Pugin, was reduced to a smouldering ruin by German bombing during World War II. Restoration began in 1953 according to plans by Romilly Bernard Craze, author of several post-war restoration projects. Pugin's original grand design was never fully realised either in the old cathedral or in the new – the spire, for example, was never built. The cathedral is nevertheless a stunning example of the Gothic Revival style. The exterior is rather austere, with some stone faces but no gargoyles. Inside, the Blessed Sacrament chapel, with its wrought iron gates and intricately carved altarpiece, survived the bombing, as did a few other fixtures. There are varied shrines to saints, all very tasteful – avoiding the excessive while fostering devotion. There is a very impressive virtual tour of the building on the cathedral's website – a brief description would not do it justice.

The church

In 1842 Pope Pius IX restored the English hierarchy, and St George's was chosen as the cathedral church of the new diocese of Southwark. Few churches anywhere have as rich and varied a history, and the parish clearly has a mission of tending to those in need, as was evident from announcements and bulletin listings. They sponsor chapters of the Union of Catholic Mothers and Association for the Propagation of the Faith, and an ecumenical liaison group, as well as Bible study and religious education for both children and adults.

The neighborhood

One could write volumes on the history of Southwark, and indeed books have been written about the cathedral itself. Currently, Southwark has a blend of exclusive restaurants and shops, particularly at the nearby South Bank, alternating with the working class bustle of the Lower Marsh Market. It is an interesting blend of yuppie and council housing. As is true of many London neighbourhoods, Southwark, once a very depressed area, now has a number of exclusive buildings, though the more modest housing and businesses fortunately have not been completely replaced.

The cast

The names of the four clergy who are assigned to the cathedral were listed in the leaflet – but there was no indication of who conducted the service. (I regret this, because I'd love to cite the name of a preacher of such high quality.)

What was the name of the service?

Family Mass.

How full was the building?

The pews were absolutely packed with people of all ages – though families with children naturally were predominant. It was a fascinating group: Missionaries of Charity (the congregation founded by Mother Teresa); women in magnificent African garb; even a few older ladies who resembled Miss Marple (and those are the rarest of all to view today).

Did anyone welcome you personally?

I was impressed by the hospitality and helpfulness of the cathedral staff. I had not known the observance of the Ascension had been transferred to Sunday, and had rung the church office on the previous Thursday to enquire whether there was an evening eucharist. I was told merely that the observance had been transferred. Within minutes, though, someone called me back to give me a full schedule. On the day of the service, I had arrived very early and no greeters were yet on duty, but once they arrived, one of them brought me a leaflet and hymnal.

Was your pew comfortable?

Yes, quite standard.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

I have no addiction whatever to children and would most likely have attended a later service had I known beforehand that this was to be a family mass. However, I found it impressive that the general atmosphere was reverent and dignified, not only before the service but also for the duration. This is hardly universal where masses aimed at children are concerned.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

Those of the entrance hymn: "Hail the day that sees him rise."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Hymnal and leaflet containing the mass propers.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ. A fair to middling children's choir sang.

Did anything distract you?

As an Anglican, I am accustomed to singing hymns full voice. And so it surprised me that, for all the overall sense of warmth and involvement, barely anyone sang a note – and those who did so affected the standard RC "no singularisation" crooning.

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

Casual, standard RC Mass with hymns.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

8 minutes.

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

10 – The homilist was exceptionally gifted, and managed to include various critical points related to the Ascension and our own journey toward heaven. He had the rare talent for including strong theological points while keeping his presentation simple enough for even young children to understand easily. For example, there was a light-hearted reference to the Ascension as "our ticket to heaven."

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

He began by asking the children how it feels when we are parted from friends. He quickly connected this with a consideration of Jesus' telling the disciples, "I am in your midst," then commissioning them to teach all nations. Life is perfected in living the gospel; the Word lives in us.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

Sorry to repeat myself, but I was extraordinarily impressed with the sermon. There were varied references to scripture, doctrine, and current topical issues (this was the week, for example, of the disasters in China and Burma). I have rarely heard such richness of expression in eight minutes – and certainly never at a family Mass.

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

The unthinkable (for a Mystery Worshipper, so accustomed to being in churches) happened: my mobile phone rang toward the end of the service. I tried to slip out quietly and at once, and was very embarrassed to see that a number of clergy were standing right outside the door ready to greet the worshippers after the final blessing and hymn, from which I was playing truant. The ghost of the RC schoolgirl I once was made me feel so naughty that I stumbled.

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

I dearly wanted not only to look lost but to disappear!

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

I don't believe there was any coffee hour.

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

5 – Were I Roman Catholic, I have to admit that I'd take the brief bus ride to Westminster Cathedral, where the music and liturgy are outstanding and more to my taste.

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

Yes, indeed. The packed pews and seemingly strong involvement of clergy and laity gave me a heartening impression of a church which is concerned with all needs of the flock, not only common worship.

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

Hearing the first family mass sermon that captured the true theology of the Ascension while keeping the attention of children.

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