Cathedral of St John the Baptist, Norwich, England


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Cathedral of St John the Baptist
Location: Norwich, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 24 February 2019, 11:00am

The building

I have walked past St John the Baptist Roman Catholic Cathedral many times, as I live nearby, and two things have always struck me: it’s huge, and it seems ‘built to look old.’ Google tells me that the cathedral was constructed between 1882 and 1910 on the site of the Norwich City Gaol to designs by George Gilbert Scott, Jr, the 19th century champion of Late Gothic and Queen Anne Revival styles. Originally a parish church, it was elevated in 1976 to the cathedral church for the newly created Diocese of East Anglia and the seat of the Bishop of East Anglia. It is the second largest Roman Catholic cathedral in England. One enters via the narthex (café, meeting rooms, nice toilets). My first impression was of light and warmth.

The church

The cathedral serves a largely dispersed rural diocese. The cathedral website points the visitor to a huge range of activities and services on offer – theological library, café, children’s groups, educational visits, pilgrimages, concerts. A variety of worship every day. There is a weekly mass in Polish.

The neighborhood

Norwich, about 100 miles northeast of London, is stiff with churches. Within the city walls you can’t turn a corner without bumping into one. The largest number of these are Church of England, with several repurposed. To find a Catholic church you have to go just outside the city walls, crossing the inner ring road by pedestrian bridge. The cathedral commands the top of the hill between Unthank and Earlham Road, opposite the synagogue. It is immediately surrounded by large estates of social housing. It also stands at the apex of the so-called Norwich Golden Triangle residential area. The Golden Triangle is notable for high house prices, lots of students and young professionals; a range of independent artisan/craft shops and pubs; and the Norwich expression of hipsters.

The cast

An unnamed priest celebrated and preached. An unnamed cantor sang. Congregation members read.

What was the name of the service?

Solemn Mass – Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time.

How full was the building?

When the mass started the building was about one-third full. People continued to arrive through the service, and by the time the liturgy of the eucharist started there were people standing in the south aisle. The congregation were notably young; and for Norwich, notably international.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

I got a smile with the paperwork. Handshakes from all sat near me during the peace. No words exchanged beyond 'Peace be with you.'

Was your pew comfortable?

Yes. Low backed with a comfortable kneeler.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Generally quiet and reverent – people kneeling, lighting candles, quietly chatting.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

‘In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.’

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Single A4 bookfold with hymns, readings, and some responses. News sheet. The full liturgy and responses were not provided. People were expected to know. I got some of the words right.

What musical instruments were played?

Electronic organ, an opus of Bradford Computing Organ Company Limited of Shaw, Oldham, Lancashire, upgraded by Phoenix Organs of Peterborough, Ontario, Canada. The cathedral website looks at its shoes and mumbles of failed pipe organ schemes over the years. The instrument was played well, though I would question some of the organist’s choices (see below).

Did anything distract you?

Being in a new space/unfamiliar church is always a bit distracting. Looking at the carvings, the fossils in the marble pillars, the chancel tableau, worrying about knowing the right words, and so on.

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

Modern Catholic. Gloria and Credo in Latin. Informal feel.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

6 minutes.

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

7 — The priest read from his notes without varying his tone much. His microphone technique was not strong – I sat just past the middle and had to work hard to listen.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

His text was the gospel for the day: Luke 6:27-38 (‘Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you’). What is it that stops us giving to those who ask of us? Tiredness? Burnout? Sense of injustice? Lack of reciprocity? We need to remember that whenever we do good to those around us, we will be rewarded by God. In doing good, we are making deposits in the bank of God. God will respond to us by giving us gifts and rewards. Each evening, reflect on the day and the opportunities we have had to give to others – did we take them? Pray for God to help us to do more.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

Worshipping with a congregation of diverse age and ethnicity. The low winter sun shining beams through the incense laden interior of the church. The down to earth, nuts and bolts sermon. No complex theology or fancy footwork here. Do good – God will reward you.

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

It hurt and dislocated me not to share in the eucharistic feast. People didn’t sing. At the start of the service, the organist did a playover for ‘All my hope on God is founded,’ then set off on his own. After the first line the cantor sorted out his microphone and soloed the hymn. The organist showed his love for fancy last verses – this can work well when keen singers snap back to unison with gusto. However, perhaps not here. The responses were better, but the hymns remained dire.

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

I hung around looking lost in several spots. No one spoke to me. This felt OK. I read the educational boards that are front and centre as you enter the church. They set out an edited version of the history of Catholics in England, highlighting centuries of oppression. All true. But as we sat opposite the synagogue, talking oppression without naming the oppressing done felt problematic.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Mug, hot, good.

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

4 — Probably not outside of any Christian Unity sort of thing. It was hard not receiving the elements.

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

Yes. It seemed a rich and engaging worshipping community.

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

The diverse congregation.

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