York Minster, England

General Synod, York Minster, York, England


Info and corrections →

Mystery Worshipper: Cantate Domino
Church: General Synod
Location: York Minster, York, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 11 July 2010, 10:00am

The building

Does this building need any introduction except in superlatives? The biggest medieval cathedral north of the Alps. The most complete collection of medieval stained glass in any church in Europe. The biggest single expanse of medieval glass (the great east window) anywhere in the world. The famous heart of Yorkshire tracery in the great west window. All are only part of what makes this cathedral so famous and much loved. This massive medieval cathedral contains all three major medieval styles: early English (the transept); decorated (the nave); and perpendicular (the choir and Lady chapel). There are also the remains of the Norman cathedral lurking in the crypt. The building visible above ground was started by Archbishop Walter de Grey in 1220 and it was de Grey who built the transepts. Work continued down to the 15th century. Since then the cathedral has caught fire in 1829, 1840 and 1984. Major work on the foundations in 1967 stopped the central tower from falling (and the massive concrete bands holding things up are clearly visible in the crypt).

The church

The Cathedral and Metropolitan Church of St Peter, York, is a minster church, originally meaning that the building was a centre for missionary activity. Now the Minster is the mother church of the northern province of the Church of England, base for the Primate of England and a venue for a range of activities and services, from the University of York's graduations to diocesan events such as ordinations, the enthroning of archbishops, and the consecrations of bishops of the northern province. Of course a large part of the congregation at daily evensong and Sunday services are the huge numbers of tourists who come year round.

The neighborhood

Originally a Roman fort, then a Viking settlement, the area around the Minster is now a cathedral close. York Minster is surrounded by picturesque medieval streets (including the world-famous Shambles), medieval churches, the Minster Song School and Dean's Park, a large grassed area to the north of the cathedral. Very little modern intrudes to spoil the picturesque quality of the surroundings. The area always buzzes with tourists.

The cast

The Most Revd and Rt Hon. Rowan Douglas Williams, Lord Archbishop of Canterbury and Primate of All England; the Most Revd John Sentamu, Lord Archbishop of York and Primate of England; the Dean and Chapter of York; visiting clergy, nuns and members of religious orders, including the Community of the Resurrection; the choir of boys and men; the master of music; the organist; and a full party of acolytes, crucifers, deacons and altar servers, along with the president, registrar, officers and members of the Synod.

What was the name of the service?

Sung Eucharist attended by the Officers and Members of the General Synod of the Church of England.

How full was the building?

The cathedral was packed - thousands of people. I arrived 20 minutes beforehand and could only sit up the back.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

A lady smiled at me and a sidesman found me a spare seat.

Was your pew comfortable?

It was bearable. There was a lot of sitting, as it took forever to administer communion.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

The cathedral was throbbing, not least as it was full of members of one the most fractious and divisive synods in recent history. However, the atmosphere wasn't unpleasant, but simply intense with discussion and prayer.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Welcome to York Minster," spoken by an unnamed cleric who then made the obligatory request for us to turn off our mobiles.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

A printed order of service with liturgy, readings and hymns.

What musical instruments were played?

The cathedral's vast pipe organ, whose nearly 6000 pipes surmount the pulpitum. The singing was led by the boys and men of the cathedral choir, who offered an anthem that was receiving its world premiere (it was OK, but the world will cope without a second performance).

Did anything distract you?

In York Minster, there is plenty to distract the eye! Medieval carvings, stained glass windows, that weird dragon's head halfway down the nave clerestory – that and losing count of the number of dog collars in the congregation. I've never seen so many in one place. I was also distracted by the way the Archbishop of Canterbury handled his mitre. Most bishops just seem to plonk it on and off, but the archbishop used refined and sweeping gestures and the mitre positively glided through the air.

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

Actually very plain, in that there was no incense and the vestments were all very restrained (mostly surplices and stoles for clergy, a chasuble for the Archbishop of Canterbury, and rochet and chimere for the Archbishop of York. The gospel was proclaimed with multiple alleluias. Archbishop Williams genuflected so profoundly after consecrating the elements that he actually disappeared out of sight behind the altar.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

17 minutes.

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

9 – Archbishop Sentamu preached a witty sermon. His message of brotherly and sisterly love was very clear but also very charged in the immediate context of sometimes nasty synodical debates. My only problem was the amplification, which made it very hard to hear him, as there was terrible reverb at the end of the nave.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The archbishop took as his text the parable of the Good Samaritan (which had been the gospel reading). He compared the man who was left lying on the side of the road, beaten almost to the point of death, to the Church, the "wounded people of Christ." We must be prepared, he said, to help even those who have brought their own misfortunes on themselves. He urged the Synod to stop battling and to start behaving as children of Christ.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

Archbishop Williams single-handedly provided this particular sensation. My word, the man is charismatic! Simply seeing him walk down the aisle made me shiver in excitement. But the most wonderful discovery was his exquisite singing voice. Being blessed by not one but two primates as they processed out was also rather thrilling. Archbishop Williams provided another heavenly moment as he was blessing the elements, he spoke the words over gentle singing and organ playing, and the words, music and his delightful voice together created an almost mystical atmosphere.

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

Nothing about the service took me down there, but it was impossible to forget the immediate context of this service; the Church of England in crisis once again, pockets of misogyny and homophobia rearing their heads, threatened defections, and the apparent ruination of the authority of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

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

It was a long service, what with about 2000 people to communicate. After the service I made straight for the north transept in the hope that Archbishop Williams himself might appear. He did! I stood within metres of him (and filmed him in conversation on my mobile) and again it was a total thrill.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Horrible milky tea, but worth it for the opportunity to get up close to the Archbishop of Canterbury. I kept getting more as an excuse for diving back into the crowd where he was to be found.

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

10 – I am certain that the Archbishop of Canterbury will be the principal celebrant of daily eucharist in heaven. And if I could hear mass every day as celebrated by the archbishop, I would be in heaven!

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

Pleased to be an Anglican and it's nice to be surrounded by other Anglicans en masse.

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

Above all else, Archbishop Williams' elegant and deft way of getting his mitre on and off.

Our Mystery Worshippers are volunteers who warm church pews for us around the world. If you’d like to become a Mystery Worshipper, start here.

Find out how to reproduce this report in your church magazine or website.

Comments and corrections

To comment, please scroll to the end of this report and add your thoughts there. To send us factual corrections, please contact us. We also discuss reports on our Ecclesiantics bulletin board.

© Ship of Fools