St Mary's Cathedral, Edinburgh, Scotland


Info and corrections →

Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Mary's Cathedral
Location: Edinburgh, Scotland
Date of visit: Friday, 11 May 2012, 12:45pm

The building

Photo: © Michael T R B Turnbull and used under license Not to be confused with the Scottish Episcopal cathedral of the same name. In a city of major landmarks, the Metropolitan Cathedral Church of Our Lady of the Assumption is a minor landmark. A large, rather square stone church with ornamental spires but no tower or steeple. It sits on a busy junction at the east end of town. Inside, its a highly ornamented but open space, not sectioned off into lots of little chapels. In fact, there only seemed to be two, one each side of the high altar. On the gospel side it was clearly a Lady chapel, and on the other side is the national shrine to St Andrew, patron saint of Scotland, complete with two relics and a rather modern icon. A fresco on the arch over the entrance to the sanctuary depicts Mary being crowned Queen of Heaven, attended by angels of all ranks. There was an interesting rope sculpture of the crucifixion in the north entrance hall, also very modern.

The church

This is the mother church of Roman Catholicism in Scotland. They offer a daily mass in the Polish language, and more than one a day in English. Sherlock Holmes' creator, Arthur Conan Doyle, was baptised here. There is a cafe attached to the church, accessed through the porch. There's a new Saturday market offering food, clothes, crafts and general wares on the open space in front of the cathedral.

The neighborhood

St Mary's sits at the east end of the centre of Edinburgh, with the Episcopal cathedral of the same name at the west end. There's a modern shopping centre next door. Its on a busy couple of corners, with theatres, restaurants and shops all around.

The cast

There was one priest, assisted at communion by a layman from the congregation. No names, sorry.

What was the name of the service?


How full was the building?

There were probably close to 50 individuals scattered throughout the capacious nave. Very few pairs, couple or groups mostly individuals. I'm sure it's a different story on a Sunday.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

No. I came through the porch entrance. A couple of women were talking, but they paid me no attention. Nor I them.

Was your pew comfortable?

Wooden chair, fit for purpose. It was fine. Long fold-up kneeler rail.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Once through the porch into the church itself, I observed people sitting or kneeling, in complete silence.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Nothing. Everyone knew the responses by heart. I looked around afterwards and there was nothing available even if I had wanted it.

What musical instruments were played?

None, it was just a said mass.

Did anything distract you?

The building distracted me. I was visiting the city and I had never been here before. I found lots to look at. The stations of the cross were all in a row close together on the north wall, and from my distance many of them looked quite similar. There was a parade of painted crowned kings heads on buttresses (atlantids) around the roof and I wondered who they all were. They looked like figureheads on the bow of a ship, except they were male.

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

It was functional, almost perfunctory. It was a midday mass and it did what it said on the label.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

2 minutes.

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

7 – The priest was succinct, to the point; he actually spoke quite quickly but he was easily understood. It was too short a homily to judge him by, really. I was surprised there was a homily at all, however brief.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

It was about Jesus' commandment to love one another. That's all we have to do. We get bogged down in rules and regulations and lose sight of the simple command just to come to every task and every person with love. Coming to the eucharist in community is one way we can do that.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

I thought the building was lovely. Clear windows up high let in lots of light. I liked the wide unobstructed space.

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

Well, call me greedy, but I do prefer communion in both kinds. I was wondering whether Scotland is a bit like Ireland in only offering communion in one kind to the congregation; however, I have it on good authority that that's not the case, so perhaps in the interest of expedience in the middle of the day, they just don't bother passing the chalice.

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

I wandered around unhindered, enjoying a good look at the shrine to St Andrew.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There is a cafe attached to the church. One doesn't expect refreshments after a weekday lunch-time mass, after all.

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

3 – Nice building, but nothing else commended it.

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

Not particularly, but nor did it put me off. It was functional but by no means uplifting.

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

The painted kings holding the roof up.

Our Mystery Worshippers are volunteers who warm church pews for us around the world. If you’d like to become a Mystery Worshipper, start here.

Find out how to reproduce this report in your church magazine or website.

Comments and corrections

To comment, please scroll to the end of this report and add your thoughts there. To send us factual corrections, please contact us. We also discuss reports on our Ecclesiantics bulletin board.

© Ship of Fools