The Cathedral of the Holy Spirit, Guildford, is the only cathedral in the south of England to be built on a new site since Reformation times. The cathedral is a relatively modern building, dating from the mid-late 1950s/early 1960s. It sits on the top of Stag Hill in Guildford and dominates as you go past on the A3 – the gilded angel on the tower is a particularly visible landmark. Laid out in the traditional cruciform shape, the exterior is brick faced and the interior is cut stone in a faux-gothic style. The overwhelming impression inside is of size. This is accentuated by the fact that there is no choir screen, and so you have the effect of a vast distance from west end to high altar coupled with the roof at a very great height above you. In other words, it's a great barn of a building!
Since I called in on the off-chance that there was a service at the time at which I was passing (there was), I didn't really get a chance to assess this. However, during some announcements during the service, I got the feeling that there was a supportive, caring local community. I have no idea what their involvement in the wider community and world is, but I would be interested to know.
Guildford lies 27 miles southwest of London on the road to Portsmouth. Unlike most of the older English cathedrals, Guildford's is not in the town centre. Rather, it sits high above the town, overlooking the hospital and close to the University of Surrey. On one side of Stag Hill there is the road network, and most of the rest of area around the lower reaches of the hill is residential.
I assume that the Revd Canon Dr Nicholas Thistlethwaite, precentor, led the service. The preacher was the Revd Canon Jonathan Frost, residentiary canon.
What was the name of the service?Choral Evensong (Book of Common Prayer).
How full was the building?
There was quite a respectably sized congregation, probably around 20 or 30 people (plus choir), in a great barn of a building designed to hold hundreds. However, rather unusually in my experience of Anglican churches, we were mostly congregated at the front, so whilst we were rattling around in terms of the total space, it didn't feel uncomfortably empty (but then I didn't look back down the nave!).
Did anyone welcome you personally?
The person who handed me my service sheets gave me a welcoming smile and said hello.
Was your pew comfortable?
There weren't any pews – rather those almost ubiquitous slatted interlocking wooden seats found in most cathedrals. My chair was adequately comfortable, a nice distance from the row in front, thus permitting one to kneel without crippling oneself. I had plenty of space to spread out my books and Mystery Worship notepad.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Mostly quiet and contemplative. I arrived about ten minutes before start of service, and was surprised to see the choristers practising their exit. It seemed a little late for that, but they were quiet and dignified about it (and made a pretty good job of the corners!). Rather more distracting were the cluster of ladies about three rows in front of me on the other side of the central aisle who spent the entire ten minutes before the service whispering to each other. I’m sure they were trying to be discreet, but much in the manner of a stage whisper, it was very intrusive!
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"O Lord, open Thou our lips" – the opening verse for evensong.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
We had a card with the order of service on it, though prayer books were available if you wanted to follow the psalms. The hymns came from Common Praise.
What musical instruments were played?
Solely the organ.
Did anything distract you?
Before the service, I was terribly distracted by the whisperers in front of me, but they shut up once the service started. During the service, I spent rather too much time contemplating the acres of space between the choir stalls, and wondering how much mileage the choirmaster had covered as he moved to and fro to conduct the antiphonal parts of the psalm, canticles and anthem.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Anglican choral evensong is – well – Anglican choral evensong. It was traditional and dignified, but without being pompous or self-important.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 – Canon Frost started out with an attention-grabbing question, and continued to hold my attention entirely for the duration of the sermon. His style was lively and he seemed to bounce with enthusiasm and energy throughout his sermon. Somehow, despite the fact that you knew he was preaching in an enormous, mostly empty building, you were drawn into what felt like a discourse in your front room.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The attention-grabbing question was "How's it going to end?" That aspect of cricket known as the test match can seem endless, as can certain books one might read, but when we want to know how a story is going to end we are really asking to be part of a bigger story. When we ask "How's it going to end?" in light of recent human events, such as 9/11 or the war in Iraq or hurricanes or famine, we must face the question of whether God is vengeance or love. God is NOT vengeance! As Christians, we are to follow Paul's example and trust in the grace of God. We can't skip to the end of the story to find out how it will end, but if we trust in God we will soon know. After all, it is God who is writing the story, not we.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The choir were singing the Smith responses, which I know well, and as they sang, so did my heart and mind. They did a harmonised version of the Lord's Prayer that I hadn't heard before, and it pulled and tugged on my heartstrings. The tugging continued through the later responses until they arrived at the final Amen, which moved me almost to the point of tears.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Aargh – the psalm! I love Anglican chant, but the acoustics were such that it was almost impossible to tell what the choir were singing unless you happened to be following along in the prayer book. That said, there was one sudden, stunning moment of clarity when the choir sang unaccompanied, but mostly it was a mush of noise. An accurately tuneful mush of noise, it's true, but I'd have loved to hear more clearly.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I have to say, the congregation at Guildford are remarkably courteous, and stayed in their seats for the organ postlude, which they applauded. We all then drifted gently off in our various directions unnoticed. I stopped to sign the visitor's book and flapped my service sheet helplessly around until it was taken from me with a "Thank you." On my way out, I was greeted by Canon Frost and had one of those conversations about are you visiting, what brought you here, where are you from, etc. etc. I felt welcomed and affirmed by his interest and by the fact that he seemed genuinely pleased that I had stopped in on my way through Guildford. He then wished me a good journey home (although whether or not that's possible on the M25 is another story!).
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Coffee would have been nice considering the journey I had ahead of me, but no, there wasn't any. But then, I wasn't expecting any, as this was an evening service.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 – It's a long trip for me, but I'd be tempted to return to see whether the hint of community that I picked up on could blossom in that vastness of building.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Very much so. In many respects I'd had quite a difficult day, and I ended up feeling refreshed, thankful and renewed – not a bad thing!
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
"How's it going to end?" I don't know the answer, but I want to find out!