Canterbury Cathedral (Exterior)

Canterbury Cathedral, Canterbury, Kent, England


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Canterbury Cathedral
Location: Canterbury, Kent, England
Date of visit: Thursday, 21 March 2013, 3:00pm

The building

The Cathedral and Metropolitical Church of Christ at Canterbury was founded by St Augustine, who came to England as a missionary on the orders of Pope Gregory the Great in AD597 and became the first Archbishop of Canterbury. Parts of St Augustines original building remain beneath the present nave, and the site was already sacred in Roman times. Typically, the building has been enlarged and altered over the centuries, but parts of the early Norman construction remain in the north transept, around the shrine to the martyrdom of St Thomas in 1170. Parts of the quire and some of the stained glass also date from this time. There is a wealth of resources online detailing the architecture and history of the building, but notable unique features include the compass rose in the nave, marking the building as the mother church of the worldwide Anglican communion, and the shrine to the martyrdom of St Thomas Becket. The latter marks the spot where Becket fell, and includes a small altar called the Altar of the Swords Point. The building is divided internally by a massive screen at the crossing behind the nave altar, so visibility between the nave and the quire and beyond is negligible, making it a building of really two halves.

The church

This service marked the inauguration of the 105th Archbishop of Canterbury, a line stretching back to St Augustine 1,400 years ago, and this has been a place of daily worship for all that time. It had been an abbey for 500 years until the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII in 1540, when it was closed and plundered, and it suffered again during the civil war a century later. The various activities of the cathedral employ 300 staff and 800 volunteers and include stained glass and stone conservation work as well as a full calendar of worship, choir, school and community events.

The neighborhood

The immediate neighbourhood was designated a UNESCO world heritage site in 1988, marking the visual record of the introduction of Christianity to Britain. The site includes the cathedral precincts, St Augustines abbey, and his original church, St Martins, the oldest church in England still in use today. The medieval town is splendid although it suffered significant damage in the Second World War. The Kings School, within the cathedral grounds, is arguably the oldest school in the world, having possibly been founded by St Augustine himself. It took its current name at the dissolution of the monasteries under King Henry VIII. The city of Canterbury is only 17 miles from the port of Dover, linking the British Isles to continental Europe, and only 60 miles from London.

The cast

In chronological order, rather than hierarchical: The Very Revd Robert Willis, dean of Canterbury, gave the welcome and generally presided. A teenage member of the congregation, Evangeline Kanagasooriam, greeted the archbishop (a role historically filled by a male church official) when he entered the cathedral by the west doors, having knocked three times with his staff. Canon John Rees, principal registrar of the Province of Canterbury, read the mandate of installation. The Archbishop of York read the declaration of assent (requiring the new archbishop to take the corporal oath, which he did). The Rt Revd Jana Grinberga of the Lutheran Church of Great Britain read the Old Testament lesson. The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, the Most Revd Vincent Nichols, read the New Testament lesson. The Archdeacon of Canterbury, the Very Revd Sheila Watson, installed the new Archbishop of Canterbury on his diocesan throne (the first woman ever to perform this function), where the Bishop of London and Bishop of Dover gave him blessings. The dean then sat him on the Chair of St Augustine, where the Archbishop of Burundi pronounced a blessing in French. The new archbishop gave the greeting of peace, read the gospel, delivered the sermon and led the saying of the Nicene Creed. Lay people from the diocese led the intercessions from the compass rose in the nave, and the archbishop pronounced the final blessing. Did I leave out anyone? Ah, mustn't forget – the proceedings were held in the presence of His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales, and Her Royal Highness The Duchess of Cornwall.

What was the name of the service?

The Inauguration of the Ministry of the One Hundred And Fifth Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Portal Welby

How full was the building?

It was as full as possible, with more than 2,000 people present. Seating was arranged facing the central aisle of the nave to accommodate the greatest possible number. Apparently the congregation had been greatly reduced for fire safety reasons compared to the services for previous archbishops, which must have made the guest list challenging for cathedral staff. The quire, transepts and seating around the high altar appeared to be reserved for honoured guests and many of the hundreds of people taking part in various processions.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

There were many marshals on duty checking tickets at the door and directing us to our designated seats, on which the order of service had been placed.

Was your pew comfortable?

Where we were, the chairs were modern linked wooden ones – comfortable enough, especially as there was a fair amount of movement, standing for processions, hymns and so on. Elsewhere, in the quire and so forth, Im sure there would have been stalls and other kinds of seating.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

The doors opened an hour before we had been instructed to be in our seats, so the nave was already fairly full long before the official start time of three oclock. However, the processions began 50 minutes before the first official words were spoken, so there was plenty of activity. We had already sung two hymns and witnessed two lengthy processions and the entrance of Their Royal Highnesses before the service formally started.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Welcome to this ancient cathedral church of Christ in Canterbury." The dean went on to extend the welcome to those who were joining us in their homes from all over the world, as the service was broadcast live on radio and television.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

There was a 44-page order of service, available for download here.

What musical instruments were played?

The organ was played by Matthew Martin. The bells were rung before and after the service by the Cathedral Company of Change Ringers. There was an amazing interlude of African drumming and dancing just before the reading of the gospel I say amazing, not because it is an unusual feature of such services (its not) but because it was really loud, which made it quite literally resounding. We couldnt see the dancers but we could certainly hear the performance. The cathedral acoustics were tremendous. Our line of sight was not great, but we heard every word and every note.

Did anything distract you?

There were plenty of distractions, from playing the identification game on the faces in the crowd and occasionally making a discreet sign of recognition to acquaintances, to watching the cameras move and swivel on their silent booms, to observing the security guards lurking at the back and the movements of the marshals, the comings and goings through a side door that introduced a wintry breeze every time it opened. There was one man, evidently a doctor, who was summoned away from his seat, black bag in hand, a couple of times. I was also amused to notice that one of the sign-language interpreters diligently translated even the Te Deum Laudamus as it was sung by the choir, although the words were printed out in full in the order of service.

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

It was extremely formal, completely scripted, and parts of it were archaic and were only redeemed from tedium by the fact that they were so momentous and unusual. However, it still managed to be genuinely joyful and there was such a lot of enthusiastic music and singing that it was never dull.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

9 minutes.

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

9 – Obviously Archbishop Justin had prepared the sermon, but he also improvised. The printed version available on his website does not include his opening quip, which was about the "good reverberation" in the cathedral. He spoke well and clearly and his message was clear.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The gospel reading was Matthew 14: 22-33 – where Jesus walks on water and commands Peter to get out of the boat. The sermon, in a nutshell, was about faith transcending fear. Archbishop Justin said that on this occasion he could certainly relate to Peter's fear and trembling, but that when it's Jesus who is calling, the utterly absurd becomes completely reasonable. He also talked about the new Pope Francis calling us in humility and simplicity to become the fully human community of which we all dream.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

Well, it was just a privilege to be there. The singing was great fun. There were nine congregational hymns, including one written by the dean of Canterbury. And the organ music and choir pieces were beautiful, while the African drumming was breathtaking.

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

Visibility from where we sat, a few rows back in the middle of the nave, was pretty dire. There were a few TV screens, but they were quite small and placed quite high at the bottom of the windows, so their efficacy was minimal. Furthermore, the bright lights for the cameras made seeing anything on them even more difficult. So we couldnt actually see much of what went on, other than the processions as they passed. There was a whole interlude when various members of the Anglican Communion placed symbolic objects on the altar, and we could barely make out what was happening. Fortunately the order of service kept us informed. Also, it was extremely cold, but we can't blame the planners for the weather.

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

We were lucky enough to be invited to a tea, so it wasn't a question of hanging around looking lost. We had no idea where to go, but helpful stewards and, eventually, signage pointed the way until there was an obvious crowd to follow.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There were a variety of teas in different venues, to which different categories of guests had evidently been invited with colour-coded tickets. There was also a huge exodus from the cathedral gates, indicating that not everyone had such an invitation. Our ticket entitled us to enjoy real tea and lovely cakes in a building located on the other side of the compound. It was very welcome indeed, as we were chilled to the bone after the service and the brisk walk to get there.

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

10 – Sadly, we dont live in Canterbury. However, I would give that a 10 out of 10 too, so yes, I would love to live and worship in this lovely corner of England if I could afford to!

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

Yes. It was a real privilege to be there, and what a week to be a Christian, with Pope Franciss similar ceremony just two days earlier. This service was visibly ecumenical, and that felt good.

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

The endless processions.

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