The Cathedral Church of the Holy and Undivided Trinity of Ely is huge, Norman, built on an island in the Fens, which were subsequently drained to make very flat farmland. The site was already sacred to St Etheldreda, who is still remembered here. The impressive Norman nave and west end are dominated by the Octagon, built in the 14th century but lit with Victorian stained glass. The beautiful Lady chapel and chantry chapels were very brutally vandalised by reformers – and the vandalism didn’t stop with them (read on!). The maze on the floor inside the west door is just used as floor. Ely makes no fuss about its treasures. There is a stained glass museum in the triforium.
They take their music seriously here and put on numerous concerts. They sponsor the Chorister Experience, (quoting from their website) giving ‘boys in Years 2 and 3 … a taste of life in Ely Cathedral Choir … [and] the chance to sing Evensong under the famous Octagon Tower. Along the way they'll have a chance to dress in choir robes [and] meet the current choristers.’ There is also a variety of workshops, and they welcome visits from school groups. There is morning prayer, holy communion, and evensong each day, with the Sunday holy communion being sung eucharist.
Ely was originally surrounded by wetlands, part of the marshy east coast plain of England known as the Fens – as flat as the Netherlands, much flatter than anywhere else in England. But drainage began in the 1630s and continued through the 18th and 19th centuries. Aside from the flatness, little is left of what the area must have looked like in Etheldreda’s time. From a boat or bicycle, you see nothing but the cathedral for days on end. You get to love the Octagon. Farming is the only other occupation – or scholarship in nearby Cambridge. Ely is a small town, dominated by the cathedral and dependent on tourism. The Kings School is right at its centre, and still produces outstanding music.
The whole service was processional, with an altar party, a president who introduced and led the prayers, readers and dignitaries who presented gifts, and a large choir.
What was the name of the service?An Epiphanytide Procession.
How full was the building?
Choir and altar party – 60 plus. Congregation – about double that.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
I was given a service sheet as I entered the quire.
Was your pew comfortable?
Very. Canon's stall.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Silent and expectant.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
Choir sang an introit, then: ‘Good afternoon, everybody,’ followed by a short introduction during which we were asked to move expeditiously.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
What musical instruments were played?
Did anything distract you?
Trying to count the congregation and wondering if everyone knew what ‘expeditiously’ meant. Also wondering why they didn't use the enormous Norman font.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Formal and well-choreographed. It started in the quire. Then we all processed, singing a hymn, to the Octagon altar, where gold, frankincense, myrrh (to ‘We Three Kings’ with solos) and a decanter of wine were presented to the crib. The two readings – Matthew 2:1-2, 8-11 (the visit of the Magi) for the three Kings, and John 2:1-11 (the wedding feast at Cana) for the wine – explained all this. Then, with another hymn, we moved to the nave, where a temporary font had been set up (again, why didn’t they use the Norman font?). The third reading – Mark 1:1-11 (the baptism of Jesus) – brought in the water and the congregation were sprinkled (not much). The procession then moved back (singing) to the Octagon for the renewal of the covenant. The (Wesleyan) covenant was explained and we all recited it. After each ceremony, the choir sang unaccompanied and really well. Then we processed to the Lady chapel; choir sang a polyphonic Marian antiphon. Then we returned to the quire and the organist played Dieu Parmi Nous (God Among Us) by Olivier Messiaen
Exactly how long was the sermon?
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The carol ‘Shepherds, called by angels’ by the contemporary English composer Will Todd – called a carol but sung as an anthem. Also the covenant was surprisingly moving.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The outrageous recent statue above the altar in the Lady chapel. The work itself is an abomination, but also they have blocked out the window behind it, which desecrates this lovely building from the outside as well.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Everyone left unobtrusively.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
10 — I need to know this cathedral better.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
I enjoyed the service and felt a lot of (too much?) thought had gone into it. The inclusion of the covenant was particularly interesting.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The statue of the Virgin, I'm afraid.