Exeter Cathedral, Exeter, England

Exeter Cathedral, Exeter, England


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Mystery Worshipper: Traveller
Church: Exeter Cathedral
Location: Exeter, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 14 September 2008, 10:00am

The building

The Cathedral Church of St Peter, Exeter, is a classic English cathedral: the massive Norman twin towers form the transepts, and early English pillars and tracery carry the longest unbroken roof-line of any English cathedral. This stretches from the magnificent west end, over the organ set on the pulpitum screen to the high altar beyond. The building is largely unaltered architecturally since the 14th century, having survived some rather amazing events chronicled on the cathedral's website, ranging from Edward VI's austere worship practices, through the cathedral's being handed over to the Presbyterians and Congregationalists in Cromwell's time, to a direct bomb hit in the blitz of 3 May 1942. Astonishingly, the blitz destroyed little else except the stained glass, which has been replaced. Other recent maintenance works include a new heating system, electrical wiring, a fire prevention system, and a PA system very necessary for modern use.

The church

The cathedral church is the mother church of the diocese, so that part of the community it serves is that of the whole diocese. This element was very much to the fore in our visit. Among their many spiritual and social outreaches are Nightchurch, described as "church for the unchurched", which seeks to explore the best of Christian spirituality in a variety of traditional and non-traditional ways; Life on the Beach, a joint venture of the cathedral and Churches Together in Central Exeter, which brings the gospel to the cathedral green by way of a variety of different entertainments such as choirs, bands and comedy acts; and SOAR (Soup on a Run), bringing love, food and drink to the hungry and homeless of Exeter. The eucharist and evening prayer, as well as choral matins and evensong, are celebrated at various times during the week as well as on Sundays.

The neighborhood

Exeter, in southwest England, was founded by the Celts and was the most southwesterly fortified settlement of the Romans in Britain. Much of the city centre was flattened by German bombing during World War II, and the city was rebuilt with little attempt made to preserve its ancient heritage. The classic cathedral close somehow survived it all, and the venerable cathedral-associated buildings and grass of the close form a haven of peace not far from the bustle of the commercial high street beyond.

The cast

The Rt Revd Michael Laurence Langrish, Lord Bishop of Exeter; three suffragan bishops whose names I couldn't ascertain; the Very Revd Jonathan Meyrick, Dean of Exeter; at least four archdeacons; several other prebendaries; priests and readers galore; crucifer; acolytes; choir. Oh, yes, and the 11 brave souls who were being ordained deacon.

What was the name of the service?

The Ordination of Deacons.

How full was the building?

Packed, not a spare seat to be had. Admission was by ticket only: red ones for family and personal friends in the best seats, buff for other supporters. Nave, side aisles and choir were all sardine-like. I am not sure of the capacity of the building, but it must have been close to 1,000 people in total.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Some poor steward was trying to be welcoming, checking tickets and handing out service leaflets, whilst trying to keep the queue moving, all at the same time. When we arrived, he was running low on service leaflets and was trying to catch a colleague's attention to get more. The welcome was quite amusing, really.

Was your pew comfortable?

We managed to find seats on stacking chairs in the south aisle, facing inward. The chairs were well upholstered and comfortable, but had no room to kneel.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Expectant. At this sort of gathering, many old acquaintances tend to gather and people were looking around for familiar faces in the crowd. The organ struck up a majestic prelude for the last few minutes, but conversation carried on.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Blessed be God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit." This came from the Lord Bishop after an introit anthem and the processional hymn had moved the huge cast to the nave altar area.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

A specially produced 32 page booklet for the service. This had three pages of introduction about the declaration of assent, some background to the ordination of deacons and the names and destination of the candidates. Liturgy, hymns and words of the anthems were all included.

What musical instruments were played?

The cathedral organ was used. This is a splendid instrument that dominates the interior view of the cathedral, being placed high up right in the middle of the building. It was rebuilt a couple of years ago and is currently in splendid form. Paul Morgan, cathedral organist, handled it with his usual sensitivity and skill.

Did anything distract you?

We were toward the west end of the south side aisle, close to the exit door. It was surprising how many people left during the service, with the automated mechanism giving a clunk and rattle every time it opened or closed.

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

An interesting mix of the formal and solemn linked with spontaneous delight for the candidates being ordained. The charge from the bishop is serious enough to scare anyone, and the music ranged from the choir singing introit and communion motets in Latin to a folk communion setting with the music printed in the booklet so all could join in.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

12 minutes.

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

5 – The woman preacher had a rather unfortunate petulant, self-righteous speaking voice and style that made her train of thought hard to follow. This made the sermon sound trite and lightweight. I am not certain that is fair. But the delivery and the immediate take on the content didn't strike me as terribly profound.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

She started on the theme of "At the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow." This was part of the epistle and also one of the hymns. She pointed out that this should be the fundamental belief of ordinands. She then moved on to contemplate the calling and duties of ordinands. Their task can never be finished on this side of heaven, but if they believe they are called by God, they can do no other. To be effective in this task, however, they need the support of the whole worshipping community, as we all need to share in the diaconal ministry.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

I can't pick out one particular moment, but the effect of the complete service was a wonderful affirmation of the beliefs of the church and the loving, prayerful support of those being ordained to serve the church and the world. If being in heaven is to join the heavenly host in offering praise to God, this felt like a dress rehearsal.

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

They should shoot the proofreader for the service leaflet – if there was one. The thing was scattered with errors every couple of pages. For example, in the eucharistic prayer we were told to ask God to "look with favour on your long people." Fortunately the bishop knew the difference between "long" and "loving". Ah, right then. This might have been funny for one or two slips, but after seven or eight, we suffered sense of humour failure.

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

There was no chance of looking lost – there were too many people in the congregation whom we knew. The service finished with the procession passing through the great west door to the close outside. We then followed into the bright sunshine to talk to friends and meet the newly ordained deacons. The throng was friendly and I exchanged comments with several total strangers in the crowd as well as with our own friends.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Non-existent. As there were several hundred people in the building, the logistics would have been interesting. We had travelled up in a coach party from our parish, and some of them nipped into a coffee shop to buy drinks for the return trip. Those of us who hadn't been so enterprising sat there parched and wished we had thought of the same trick.

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

No rating – This was a special event for the diocese, for the cathedral, and for our own church (one of the candidates is to become our curate). It is unfair to judge based on this service alone, as the day was anything but ordinary. However, it is our cathedral church, well known and well loved. So 10 for the cathedral as a church to attend infrequently, but no rating at this time for the cathedral as an everyday parish church.

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

Very much so. Hundreds of people packing the cathedral to bring love, prayer and support to 11 people starting out on their formal Christian ministry was a wonderful experience.

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

The cathedral close bathed in brilliant sunshine (unusual after a dreadful summer) with crowds of people, some robed but most not, gathered around the newly ordained, whilst the cathedral bells rang out to celebrate the day.

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