Mystery Worshipper: Tiger Lily
Church: The Pope visits Westminster Abbey
Location: Westminster, London
Date of visit: Friday, 17 September 2010, 6:15pm
The existing church is built largely in the new Gothic style of the 13th century, replacing the 11th century Romanesque church built by Edward the Confessor. The Gothic builders were influenced by the architecture of Reims, Amiens and Chartres, but the Abbey has strong English features, including its long nave. The beautiful Lady chapel was built by the Tudors in the early 16th century, at the same time as the Gothic nave was completed, and the two towers at the west end were in place by 1745.
A community of Benedictine monks was established here by Dunstan, Bishop of London, in about 960, and nurtured by King (later Saint) Edward the Confessor a century later. William the Conqueror chose to be crowned King of England in Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day 1066, and the monarchs of England have followed his example ever since. Westminster Abbey remained a Benedictine monastery for almost six centuries until it was disolved by Henry VIII in 1540. However, the monastic tradition of daily worship, now in the Anglican style, as well as the education of scholars, has continued to the present day. Westminster Abbey is the national church of Great Britain, the stage on which the coronations, weddings and funerals of kings and queens take place, and where significant figures in British public life are commemorated. The Abbey is a Royal Peculiar, under the authority of the sovereign rather than a bishop.
Westminster Abbey is part of the complex of buildings that are at the heart of Britain's national life. Across the road is the Palace of Westminster, which includes both Houses of Parliament. Whitehall is around the corner, with Downing Street and the major ministries of government a short walk from the Abbey. Only Westminster Hall, part of the Palace of Westminster, is older than the existing Abbey building. It was built in 1097 and for many centuries was the home of the English judiciary.
His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI; the Archbishop of Canterbury; the Dean of Westminster. The readings were by Dame Mary Tanner DBE, President of the World Council of Churches, and the Rt Revd John Christie, Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. The prayers were led by the Revd Michael Macey, Minor Canon of Westminster. The Choir of Westminster Abbey was conducted by James O'Donnell, Organist and Master of the Choristers. The organ was played by Robert Quinney, Sub-Organist, and James McVinnie, Assistant Organist.
What was the name of the service?Evening Prayer.
How full was the building?
Full to capacity, with about 2,000 people, according to one of the officials.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
We endured quite a bit of security before we were allowed in the building. I received my invitation in July and was required to submit security information about me and my guest. We had two information checks (invitation, passport and proof of address) and a body/handbag screening before entering the building. Despite the throng, the staff were professional and reasonably friendly, much nicer and more "switched on" than typical airport security, for example. On entering the building, I saw the Revd Dr Jane Hedges, Canon in Residence of Westminster Abbey, who is my all-time favourite priest. She greeted me warmly with a handshake, which made me feel much more comfortable about being in the church.
Was your pew comfortable?
Yes. It was a folding chair against the wall, set slightly apart from the other worshippers by an aisle in which the behind-the-scenes producers were walking during the service. Due to this extra activity, I reckon it was one of the best seats in the house, despite the decidedly cheap-seat status denoted by my ticket.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Charged with excitement and anticipation. My guest and I arrived rather late at 5pm (seating ended at 5pm) and we were impressed with how quiet everyone was, particularly given the numbers. There was so much to see and we were so busy gasping with pleasure that we didn't really have time to speak. The Pope's address at Westminster Hall was broadcast within Westminster Abbey (one of the televisions was directly above our seats) and we all watched with rapt attention.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Your Holiness, the Dean and Chapter welcome you most warmly as the first Pope to visit this Church dedicated to St Peter, which has been the kingdom's coronation church since 1066, and which, for 600 years as a Benedictine Abbey, until the English Reformation, enjoyed a close relationship of mutual support with the papacy." These words were spoken by the Dean of Westminster at the Great West Door of the Abbey when the Pope arrived.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
A formal, printed programme was designed specifically for the event. We were cheerfully counseled not to lose it, as we were only to be issued the one!
What musical instruments were played?
The abbey organ, which accompanied the hymns, and singing from the choir. There was also a great clanging of bells after the service, which is what I imagine one would hear for a coronation or a royal wedding.
Did anything distract you?
The background producers supplied a great deal of behind-the-scenes entertainment as they charged up and down the aisles. Of particular interest was a young female television producer, who wildly gesticulated as she angrily told off one of her male subordinates in full view of the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury. This was not great PR for those of us who want women to take more senior leadership in the Church of England. Horrified, a mousey minor female church official dressed in a red cassock desperately tried to take control of the outburst, but almost no one would take notice of her. She eventually had to call over a senior male church official to take charge and calm down the producer. As the mousey church official was wiping her brow with relief, a burly ape of a man carrying a large briefcase (it was almost a suitcase) barreled down our aisle. The mouse attempted to halt his progress, but he curtly cut her with, "Back off! Vatican Security!" My guest and I held back the giggles as we took in the full situation. It was some of the best political intrigue I have seen!
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The most pomp and circumstance possible, with full on Catholic and C of E regalia. Indeed, you can see why so many hip-hop artists so fully embrace a Christian faith once they make it big: it is the most dramatic of fashion statements. Obviously the officials were all dressed in their sparkling finery, but even we guests were tricked out in our most fabulous church outfits. Indeed, I felt sorry for the nuns, as they were dressed in horribly dowdy grey in this sea of colour. Westminster Abbey is High Church with a quintessentially stiff upper lip, and as such, services generally demand less audience participation than other churches, which is why I attend. I absolutely loathe hymn-singing at church and strictly avoid all sung services. There were three hymns sung for this service, which I found tedious, but the rest of the congregation seemed pleased and gratified to share fully in the experience.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
The Pope's address lasted 7 minutes and 44 secs. The Archbishop's was 11 seconds longer.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
It's hard to say. It was difficult to understand both the Pope and the Archbishop, partially because of the sound system, but mostly due to the fact that we were too excited to be reflective. This service was clearly more about the symbolism than the sermon. The Archbishop of Canterbury, as the host of the event, played a clear second fiddle to the Pope in dress, demeanor and discourse. The Pope was definitely the star of the show.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Pope Benedict spoke about "the challenges that confront us, not only along the path of Christian unity, but also in our task of proclaiming Christ in our day." He recalled the Venerable Bede, who understood the need to be faithful to the gospel as transmitted by the Church, while at the same time implanting the gospel "in contemporary language and culture". Archbishop Rowan also remembered a figure from the past: Pope St Gregory the Great, who initiated the mission to England in the 6th century. He spoke about the Benedictine life, which influenced St Gregory, and opened up "the possibility of living in joy and mutual service, in simplicity and self-denial." And he recalled how St Gregory was the first Pope to describe himself as the "servant of the servants of God", and what that means for pastors in the Church today.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The choir was spectacular and the pageantry was breathtaking. The whole service was a celebration!
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The anger of the hysterical female television producer who saw fit to spew her anger in the face of such a hallowed religious event. Her myopic attitude cast a poor light on female leadership. I could almost hear the Pope tutting and thinking, "All women are bunny boilers!"
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Though the Pope was off in his car before we were allowed to leave our seats inside the Abbey, I was honoured to be introduced to the Archbishop of Canterbury by a C of E priest who sat next to my guest and me during the service. He is a warm and lovely man who made me proud to be a member of the Church of England.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There were no refreshments after the service.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
10 – Westminster Abbey is my favourite church, and I visit churches all over the world.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
This service made me feel glad to be Anglican. Canon Jane Hedges in particular made me proud to be a member of a church that recognizes, albeit slowly, that we are all God's children and are equal in the eyes of God.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
I shall try to remember as many seconds as I can of this wonderful historical event. It was a great honour and privilege to have been invited to attend.