Mystery Worshipper: Reverend Mother
Church: Gloucester Cathedral
Location: Gloucester, England
Date of visit: Saturday, 10 April 2010, 4:30pm
An imposing 11th century Norman abbey with additions in a variety of Gothic styles. There are massive pillars in the nave. Noteworthy are the 14th century misericords in the quire, with a few 19th century replacements. There is a canopied shrine of King Edward II. Henry II is also buried here. The cathedral was used as a location for filming the first, second and sixth Harry Potter films as well as the 2008 Doctor Who Christmas special.
The cathedral welcomes 350,000 visitors each year. Their Education Centre provides specialised tours for school parties. The Cathedral Breakfast Club operates every Thursday morning in the winter months, offering a hot breakfast to the homeless of the city. The choir school provides musical training to young singers from all over the country, and sponsors programmes at the local schools. Each day of the year, the cathedral celebrates the eucharist and offers both morning and evening prayer.
Gloucester, founded in Roman times, is in southwest England close to the Welsh border. The core street layout dates back to the reign of Ethelfleda in late Saxon times. The city has seen its share of notoriety over the years: In 1555, Queen Mary ordered the execution by burning of John Hooper, bishop of Gloucester. In 1991, the murder of a city council worker by a resident of a bail hostel led to changes in the laws affecting those held on bail. In 2003, police evacuated more than 100 homes as they searched the James Street house of one Saajid Badat, who was an accomplice of the notorious "Shoe Bomber" Richard Reid, but had backed out of the plot. On the good side, in 1780 England's first Sunday school was founded in Gloucester. Beatrix Potter, one of the best selling children’s writers of all time and the author of The Tale of Peter Rabbit, set her book The Tailor of Gloucester in a little house leading to the cathedral close. The house can still be recognised as the same building she described in her book. Neglected for years, it has recently been refurbished and now operates as a museum and souvenir shop.
An elderly canon whose name was not given. Music was provided by a visiting choir, the Open University Chapel Choir.
What was the name of the service?Choral Evensong
How full was the building?
The quire was probably a third full – mostly, I would guess, friends and family of the visiting choir.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes. A verger approached us and asked, "Are you joining us for evensong?" He directed us to the quire entrance and told us which seats we might occupy.
Was your pew comfortable?
Yes. All seats in the quire had padded cushions and kneelers.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
A quiet reflective atmosphere. We felt protected from the buzz of tourists in the rest of the cathedral.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"We welcome you all to our cathedral in Gloucester for our service of evensong."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
An in-house service book that guided those unused to the service step by step. For some, this might have been seen to teeter on the edge of patronising.
What musical instruments were played?
Did anything distract you?
The microphone wasn't switched on at one point, but that was soon rectified. The wrong psalm was announced, but apologies were made shortly after (to chuckles from the congregation).
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Traditional choral evensong with a sleepy post-Easter evening dust sprinkled over. The visiting choir seemed very devout but were also rather elderly (read: slow). I suspect the usual cathedral choir sounds rather different.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
There was a very poignant moment when the officiant walked slowly through the choir as they were singing the Nunc Dimittis - and I felt as if I were seeing Simeon as his eyes beheld Christ in the temple.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Generally the choir tended to sing very slowly. All versicles and responses were taken very slowly indeed, and I wasn't sure whether they would survive singing Vaughan William's "Let All the World Rejoice and Sing." But they made it – just! It was very interesting to see so many local youngsters – at least 80, I would guess – outside the cathedral, playing football and otherwise putting themselves at ease. They obviously didn't feel unwelcome, but I wonder what the cathedral community does to relate to them. Needless to say, none of them ventured inside!
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
As is customary at this service, people tended to drift away into the evening twilight. I didn't get the feeling there were many regulars there. But there was plenty of evidence of Easter celebrations in the floral decorations inside and out.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 – I would like to visit on a day when the resident choir sings. Evensong rather depends on its singers.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. It gave me time and space to reflect on the Easter journey and a quiet 40 minutes to pray without hurrying.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The canon and his walk through the Nunc Dimittis.