St Mary’s Cathedral, Glasgow

St Mary’s Cathedral, Glasgow, Scotland


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Mystery Worshipper: Kingsfold
Church: St Mary’s Cathedral
Location: Glasgow, Scotland
Date of visit: Sunday, 11 May 2008, 10:30am

The building

The cathedral is the work of the English Gothic revivalist Sir Gilbert Scott, also known for the design of St Pancras railway station and the Albert Memorial in London, and dates from the late 1860s/early 1870s. It is pure Gothic Revival but has escaped some of the tasteless excesses for which Victorian Gothic buildings are very often noted! In terms of its size, the cathedral is not on anything like the scale of most English cathedrals, and actually feels a lot more like a large parish church. Inside, the decoration is fairly restrained, which makes the church feel considerably less imposing and more intimate than many other cathedrals. The roof is painted a very attractive shade of blue, with the addition of gold stars over the nave altar and chancel. It sounds a bit tacky when written down, but isn’t at all when you see it! Above the chancel arch are paintings in the Celtic style depicting the beasts which represent the four evangelists as described in Revelation 4:7. There is also a painting in the same style above the east window depicting the Annunciation.

The church

It looks as though the community is rather mixed in terms of the ages represented and also in terms of nationality (judging by the range of accents I heard). I didn’t see very many children, but there was children’s church going on in an adjacent hall, and you could periodically hear some of them. Judging by the notice sheet, there are quite a lot of different groups, and I was interested to note that there is a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender group. They describe themselves as an inclusive community on the website, and this group suggests they are really trying to live up to this label.

The neighborhood

Glasgow is Scotland's largest city and the third most populous city in the United Kingdom. Its name may date as far back as the sixth century and is thought to be derived from a Cumbric or Middle Gaelic phrase meaning "dear green place." The cathedral is located in the west end of the city on the very busy Great Western Road, about a quarter-hour walk from the university. It is surrounded by shops of various shapes, sizes and flavours, with houses and flats just behind, and with traffic ever passing by. It’s a busy area, absolutely bustling with life, seemingly at all times of the day.

The cast

The Revd Shona Lillie was the celebrant, and the preacher was the Very Revd Kelvin Holdsworth, cathedral provost, who also served as deacon. They were assisted by a subdeacon, crucifer, acolytes, and the choir.

What was the name of the service?

Sung Eucharist

How full was the building?

It looked quite full – the nave was mostly full, and there were a large number of people sitting in the side aisles. I’m guessing there were probably about 130 folk there, but I’m not good at guessing numbers!

Did anyone welcome you personally?

The clergy were outside the main door greeting people as they came in, so the provost shook my hand and said, "Hello. Welcome." I think the celebrant also said hello or words to that effect. Upon entering, I was greeted with a smile and a "Morning" by a sidesman who also handed me a service sheet.

Was your pew comfortable?

Since I didn’t really notice them one way or the other, they must have been OK. They were basically wooden benches. I do seem to recall that they were quite low backed, which meant I didn’t have anything to lean on when I was kneeling.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

There was a sort of general hubbub, but not intrusively so – people were talking and greeting one another, but none of it would have put you off prayer if that’s what you wanted to do (I was looking at the wall paintings at this point). There were a few late arrivals.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

There was a printed service book that had everything in it. Well, almost everything – the hymns (including tunes written out in four-part harmony), the psalm (including pointing and full chant) and all the congregational parts of the service (gloria, sanctus, benedictus and Agnus Dei). The readings weren't included, though. I did see a few Bibles lurking around in some of the pews, and they were New Revised Standard version.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ, played very well, with a lot of variety in the registration depending on the words of the hymns and the psalm. The instrument, a three-manual opus by the English firm of William Hill & Son dating from the 19th century, was restored in 1990. As many good organists do, this organist tended to go all-out on the last verse of each hymn.

Did anything distract you?

As Provost Holdsworth began his sermon, a car alarm went off somewhere outside. It cycled through a number of on/off patterns that, coincidentally, finished pretty much the same time as the sermon did!

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

It was most of the way up the candle – there were no smells or bells but everything else pointed in that direction. The deacon and subdeacon were both vested in tunicles and the servers were all robed in cassock and albs – and there were plenty of them. But that was just the window-dressing, if you like. The worship itself, though strictly liturgical in nature, wasn’t in the least stuffy, and had some of the heartiest congregational participation I’ve heard in a long time.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

12 minutes.

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

7 – The provost came across clearly in spite of competition from the car alarm. The beginning words of the sermon were quite memorable – see below.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The provost began by saying, "Listen!" Then he audibly breathed the word "Yahweh" a number of times, with the entire cathedral hushed to a palpable stillness. He spoke about the Holy Spirit – it was Pentecost, what else did we expect? The Spirit is the breath of God, and God is as close to you as the last breath you took. Jesus breathed on his disciples and they received the Holy Spirit to do the work that Jesus had commissioned them to do. We have the Spirit to help us do the tasks God has set for us. The gifts of the Spirit are our evidence of God at work and also our invitation to join in his activity.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

It was wonderful to have all the music for the service and to be able to join in with everything. It meant that I felt included in the whole of the liturgy, which is rare in my experience of visiting unfamiliar churches.

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

Sorry to harp on about it, but it was that car alarm. I know it was just one of those things and there wasn’t anything anyone could have done about it, but the timing was, well, hellish! Just as the full effect of the provost breathing "Yahweh" had taken root – Waaooo-waaoo-waaoo! Grrrrr.

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

Well, I had a closer look at those paintings of the evangelists and then headed for the coffee stall. There were a couple of other people in conversation who were blocking the way, and the gentleman behind the table pointed out the makings and indicated that I should help myself. So I made a cup of tea and went to lurk by a pillar. After I had stood there for a few moments, someone came over to say hello. We talked for several minutes about what I was doing there, her impressions of the community, etc. She introduced me to a few other people, and I was invited to a ceilidh (sort of a Gaelic barn dance) taking place that evening. But the thing that really touched me was that, on finding that I was very new to the area and alone here, she gave me her phone number and offered to meet me for coffee mid-week if I felt in need.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Well, it was self-service, so just the right strength! The coffee was fairly traded, but I don’t know about the tea since the tea bags were loose in a jar. I think I may have seen biscuits too.

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

9 – It seems to be a thriving and open congregation, and I’m more comfortable with a traditional, liturgically conservative church that emphasizes the eucharist. I’m looking for a church in the west end of Glasgow at the moment – whether this is where I’m supposed to be, I don’t know yet, but it's definitely somewhere I’ll be keeping in mind. I will most likely attend their earlier communion service on occasion as I explore other options too.

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

I don’t know that I felt particularly glad to be a Christian, but I did feel profoundly grateful to have been there and to have met with God there.

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

The kindness of a stranger who gave me her number and offered to meet me for a coffee if I felt lonely and in need.

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