Mystery Worshipper: Zerubbabel
Church: St Catharine's College Chapel
Location: Cambridge, England
Date of visit: Tuesday, 27 October 2009, 6:30pm
Dedicated in 1704, the chapel is surprisingly small and relatively plain, with dark wooden panelling and a striking black and white floor. The chapel is a perfect venue for the special service I attended – an atmospheric service, lit only by candles and a few very subtle downlighters.
The chapel exists to serve all members of the college and their guests, whatever their denomination or faith. As a place for quiet reflection within an otherwise very busy college and city, this must prove invaluable.
Cambridge is famous for its stunning chapels and international choirs. However, whilst the chapel of St Catharine's is rather dwarfed by its more famous neighbours, it has a quiet elegance and serenity that the chapels along the more familiar tourist routes struggle to achieve.
The Revd Anthony Moore, CMP, college chaplain, led the service. He was assisted by various college student volunteers. The choir was directed by Edward Wickham, Ph.D.(Mus.), director of music at the college.
What was the name of the service?Luminaria: A short service based on the offices of vespers and compline, centred around Jesus Christ as the Light of the World
How full was the building?
Aside from the chaplain, chapel volunteers and the 12-person choir, there was just a handful in the congregation.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
I am sure they would have done, but I arrived only minutes before the service began and was ushered in hastily, clutching my service sheets.
Was your pew comfortable?
Standard wooden pews laid out collegiate style, so facing one another into the centre of the chapel. Clearly designed for the tall and thin!
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Very atmospheric – the building was almost silent, and only very dimly lit, with a few scattered members of the congregation sitting quietly.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Blessed be God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
A service sheet specific to the day with the relevant hymn, psalm and readings, plus a separate order of service giving the more general structure.
What musical instruments were played?
Organ. Other than the opening hymn, the music was all sung unaccompanied. This seemed most suited to the style of service.
Did anything distract you?
The sparkling white trainers of the choir members glowing almost luminously in the dimly lit chapel!
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The service was intentionally quiet and reflective, focused around light. A candle was ceremonially lit at the start and extinguished at the end, during which the choir gathered in a semi-circle to sing Greek hymns. In between, the service was essentially an abridged choral evensong. Overall the service was quiet and reflective, with a leisurely pace and plenty of time for personal prayer and thought. This fitted the nature of the service, but the rousing congregational hymn felt somewhat out of place.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
No sermon. There was an extended pause for personal prayer where a sermon might have been.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The atmosphere. Although small in number, the choir was disciplined and controlled, and the music perfectly matched the quiet reverence of this contemplative service.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
I had to overcome a slight personal embarrassment at finding the congregation so outnumbered by the choir. Similarly, although quite appropriate, I found that the extended pause for personal prayer became quite uncomfortable after several minutes. I'm sure if I had known beforehand that time would be allowed for silent meditation, I would have been better prepared for it.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
The chaplain bade everyone good-bye as they left. I unfortunately had to rush off, but there were plenty of people milling around who would no doubt have been friendly.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
No coffee, but the college members were going off to dinner together.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – As an outsider to Cambridge and the college, I'm not sure I would ever seriously consider making any particular college chapel my regular church, but this service went some way toward persuading me otherwise.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The Greek hymns echoing round the darkness as the choir huddled around the central candle.