The cathedral was built in the Gothic style in the 12th and 13th centuries. In the 16th century, the Protestant Reformer John Calvin made his home here, preaching in the cathedral pulpit until his death in 1564, making this an important centre of the whole Reformation movement. During Calvin’s time, his followers smashed the statues, whitewashed the wall paintings, and pulled down the rood screen, with the result that the church interior is grand but rather plain, described by the cathedral website as ‘a deliberately bare temple’. The classical facade was added to the building in the 18th century. Next door to the cathedral is the International Museum of the Reformation, housed in the elegant 18th century Maison Mallet, which is currently shut for maintenance until 2023. The cathedral itself has relatively little information about Calvin and the other Reformers.
The cathedral is right in the middle of Geneva’s Old Town and, especially in the summer, attracts a number of Francophone tourists. The website promises a programme of activities for children and young people, plus Bible studies for adults, but the web pages are out of date, as many of the programmes listed are for 2020-21.
The Old Town is simply stunning, and made for a lovely walk from my bus stop to the cathedral. The area is a maze of cobblestone streets, ancient, narrow houses, secret passageways, museums, galleries and other historically interesting places. Nearby is the Reformation Wall, featuring statues of the heroes of Calvinism. Because the cathedral’s location is so central, it is well served by Geneva’s public transport system.
The minister led and preached. A member of the congregation gave the readings.
What was the name of the service?Culte de Dimanche, ‘Sunday worship’.
How full was the building?
About 100 people in a large cathedral.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
A lady handed me the hymn book and wished me a ‘bon culte!’
Was your pew comfortable?
Uncushioned wood, so not exactly the heights of luxury, but I’ve had worse. The cathedral is cruciform and has pews in the transept, at right angles to the main body of the church. The choir stalls are in the opposite transept, which means that all the furniture of the church has the pulpit as its focus, rather than the altar (which is disarmingly bare).
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Relatively quiet, and almost everyone filed in bang on time in a very stereotypical Swiss manner.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
Nous commençons par le psaume 45, ‘We begin with psalm 45’. This was the 45th psalm listed in the book, but I believe it was actually Psalm 130.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Only a book entitled Psalms and Hymns. This consisted of a psalter set to tunes in standard musical notation, some hymns, and some sung responses for use in eucharistic services.
What musical instruments were played?
Just an organ.
Did anything distract you?
The lady in front of me had the label sticking out of her dress, but I only remembered the French for ‘sticking out’ (dépasser, for those interested) after the service. Also, there were some mic issues: they weren’t switched on immediately, and when they were, they were a little too loud for those of us whose Saturday evenings had left us feeling a little delicate.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The service was a stiff, sparse service of the word in the Reformed style. There were some prayers, a couple of hymns, three readings (given in quick succession), a sermon and a final benediction. The minister was in black robes and white tabs, which I haven’t seen outside of Scotland before. Those used to this tradition would have admired its spareness. However, it made even low mass at my high church Episcopalian parish look like Cirque du Soleil.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
5 — The minister spoke slowly and clearly, which was appreciated as I’m not a native French speaker. However, the sermon was not breaking any new theological ground, or even saying anything all that profound. It was very preach-by-numbers, though I imagine this has a lot to do with it being summer.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The preacher discussed the Gospel reading, Luke 9:57-62, where Jesus encounters people who seem half-hearted about following him. To follow Jesus, he said, we must leave everything else behind. Ours is a pilgrim way. We cannot live in fear of mortality or mortal affairs.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The organist was excellent and gave a wonderful prelude, interlude, and postlude.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
I did not at any particular point feel especially close to God or, indeed, anything other than too hot and quite tired. There seemed to be a lack of energy overall.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
The minister stood by the door and wished me a good Sunday. I stood on the steps for a while, but the only people trying to make any conversation were handing out fliers for a walking tour. The congregation dispersed with a speed usually seen when tear gas has been deployed.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
None was served. However, the Old Town has a number of cafés and restaurants open on a Sunday. I visited A. Pougnier, on the Bourg-de-Four. As well as having exquisite homemade pastries, they’re also across the ginnel from a German Evangelical Lutheran church, who were in full song while I was drinking my coffee. If I spoke German, they would be next on my Mystery Worshipper list.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
4 — Overall the service was too drab and sparse for my taste.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Not especially. There seemed to be a certain amount of passion lacking.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
Probably the organist. And the very nice dog I saw outside afterwards. Talk about damned with faint praise.