Mystery Worshipper: Leo
Church: The Cathedral Church of the Holy and Undivided Trinity, Bristol, England.
Date of visit: Saturday, 30 March 2013, 8:00pm
This site has probably had a church on it for over a thousand years. In 1148 it became the Abbey of St Augustine. When the abbey was dissolved in 1539, the nave was destroyed. It became a cathedral church in 1542. In 1868, the nave was rebuilt to its medieval design by the architect George Edmund Street, and a few years later John Loughborough Pearson added two towers at the west end and further reordered the interior. The nave, choir and aisles are all the same height, making it the best example of a "hall church" in Great Britain.
Years ago, this cathedral seemed to some to be as stuffy as an old museum. But thanks to the present dean and precentor, the services now have style and grandeur. The congregation has grown considerably in the past few years. I think people are attracted to good music, dignified but simple ceremonial, and intelligent preaching.
Outside is College Green, a grassy area loved by sunbathers. Somewhere beneath the grass lie the relics of St Jordan, who accompanied St Augustine on his travels but stopped off in Bristol and stayed here (many of us do it's a lovely city but is known as "the graveyard of ambition" because people don't move on). There is an icon of St Jordan in the north quire aisle. The nearby Lord Mayor's chapel, formerly attached to a hospital that was pulled down during the dissolution of the monasteries, is now the only church in Britain owned and controlled by a local government authority, whose city hall is also in the area.
The Very Revd Dr David Hoyle, dean, was the celebrant. The Revd Canon Robert Bull was the deacon.
What was the name of the service?Easter Vigil and First Eucharist of Easter with Renewal of Baptismal Vows
How full was the building?
I counted about 70 people but think a few more joined us during the procession. The building is huge, but as we were seated on three sides of the nave altar, it felt full. Someone told me that in previous years this service had been held early on Easter Sunday morning as the sun was rising, but that this did not attract many people. Many churches have experimented with the timing in the face of an English preoccupation with Easter morning being the main attraction and not wanting to "jump the gun" by having holy communion the night before, despite this being a custom going back to the fourth century.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes. I approached the main entry somewhat dismayed, as it was clearly locked. I wondered whether I had arrived at the wrong time. A steward standing nearby asked me if I had come for the service and explained that it was starting in the cloister round the back.
Was your pew comfortable?
Yes, though we were somewhat tightly packed and it was difficult to take my spectacles out of my pocket without digging my neighbour in the ribs.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Fairly quiet. People stamped their feet in an effort to keep warm, this having been the coldest Easter on record. Then a bit of movement to avoid sparks and smoke when the new fire had been lit, and a joke from one corner about barbecuing horse burgers (a reference to recent scandals in the European meat industry).
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, on this holy night when our Lord Jesus Christ passed from death to life..."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
A specially printed order of service.
What musical instruments were played?
Organ (and hand bells at the start of the Gloria).
Did anything distract you?
Yes, in a positive way. The paschal candle was about five feet tall and it was processed right round the west end of the cathedral and through the west door. Its flame was shielded with a glass sheath to avoid it blowing out. I was distracted by thinking, "Where can I get one of those glass sheaths for next year?"
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Dignified cathedral liturgy, enabled by vergers unobtrusively ensuring that everything was in the right place and the lights came on at the appropriate point. The style was liberal catholic with incense, bells and holy water.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
There was no sermon. The Easter vigil is the most important event in the liturgical year and its rich symbolism speaks volumes for itself. To preach about it is somewhat like explaining the punch line of a joke instead of letting people work it out for themselves.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Many things: mostly, the pace of the service. The whole liturgy was done and dusted within 85 minutes with nothing omitted (except for the Genesis 1 reading being trimmed). Nothing was hurried; everything was done decently and in order. Maybe I have a liturgical form of attention deficit disorder but, frankly, services can become boring after the novelty wears off. But nothing bored me about this service. It was the best act of worship I have attended for many, many years. Although the bishop would be presiding at baptisms on Easter morning, there was one young man who was baptised this evening. It's always good to have an actual baptism during the liturgy of initiation. The lay clerks sang the psalms beautifully to plainsong and the mass setting was Herbert Sumsions rarely performed Leicester Service. I also enjoyed the singing of "Jesus Christ is risen today", a hymn that I usually find cheesy but enjoyed this time round. Lastly, the spirit of generosity shown by the dean in his manner of presiding spoke of heaven.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The singing of the Exultet. I know this ancient chant note perfect, having sung it about 30 times down the years. However, the deacon here used a much simpler chant which, somehow, didn't "feel right".
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I saw some friends whom I have not seen for a long time, so we had some catching up to do. However, I spotted a chap all by himself and was pleased to see that someone went and talked with him. Some introverts prefer the anonymity of cathedral congregations, but it is obviously not true that you can slip in and out without being noticed.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
We had a delicious glass of Prosecco, this being the queen of feasts. We then went out into the garden where a generous number of fireworks exploded into the night sky, accompanied by suitable "aahs" and "oohs."
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 – I am already committed to another church, but it is nice to come to somewhere like this when I have a day off.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, and that is a tonic because I feel somewhat jaded, having seen and done it all over several years so that I rarely get moved by anything any more. But I think there is something special about listening to the Old Testament readings by candlelight and then to have the lights flood the building as the Gloria is begun.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The huge candle with its flame protected, and the smart timing.