Guildford Cathedral, Guildford, England

Guildford Cathedral, Guildford, England


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Guildford Cathedral
Location: Guildford, England
Date of visit: Tuesday, 21 December 2010, 5:30pm

The building

Completed in 1961 from the noted 20th century simple Gothic architect Sir Edward Maufe's competition-winning plans, the Cathedral Church of the Holy Spirit, Guildford, is a red brick building overlooking the town of Guildford on one side, and the A3 highway on the other. A huge gilt angel serves as weather-vane, and the bricks are made from the clay of the hill on which the building stands. Inside, the creamy-coloured stone facing, plain glass windows, and absence of pulpitum or rood screens give an impression of vast space.

The church

This is one of England's newer cathedrals, in one of the newer dioceses, and was largely built by public subscription from the townspeople. It's a bit of a trek up the hill from the centre of Guildford; the congregation, one assumes, must all really want to be there!

The neighborhood

Guildford is the county town (capital) of Surrey, in easy commuting distance to London. The buildings of the University of Surrey line the way up to the cathedral, and the cathedral itself is used for graduation ceremonies, as well as the expected services, concerts, etc. Apart from the university, other large buildings in the neighbourhood include Tesco and the Royal Surrey County Hospital. The cathedral has a very definite "out of town" feeling to it.

The cast

No names were announced; however, from the music list, I'm guessing that the dean, the Very Revd Victor Stock, and the subdean and precentor, The Revd Canon Nicholas Thistlethwaite, were the leaders.

What was the name of the service?

Choral Evensong.

How full was the building?

Evensong was held in the chancel, as the nave was being set up for a theatrical performance later in the evening. The congregation numbered six, including myself; the choir was rather larger!

Did anyone welcome you personally?

A verger nodded and smiled as I took my seat. Also, a lady whom I recognised from my regular church said hello.

Was your pew comfortable?

Reasonably comfortable – it was one of those sturdy wooden stacking chairs. I noticed when I got up again that each one has a dove motif carved into the back. It's worth having a look at the kneelers – they are all hand-embroidered, and every one is different. Or so I'm told – I didn't go round them all to check!

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

It was pretty quiet. A couple of people conversed in whispers, but mostly it was hushed and expectant.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"O Lord, open thou our lips" – the cantor went straight into the liturgy.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The order for evening prayer was printed on a card, and this was all the congregation needed to keep up with this mainly choir-led service. The Book of Common Prayer was also available, if one wanted to follow the psalms as the choir sang them. (Pro tip – they're cunningly concealed behind the kneeler of the chair in front!)

What musical instruments were played?

Organ. I feel that I should also mention the choir here, as they were fantastic.

Did anything distract you?

There's always something to look at in a cathedral. I have to admit that my mind wandered during the psalm (it always does!) and I found my eyes drawn to the huge gold curtain that hangs down behind the altar; the bishop's chair (a lovely combination of pale blue, gold, and natural colour of the oak); the lamps in the choir stalls (conical shades – rather domestic!); a monument to the Surrey Yeomanry, and all sorts of other things.

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

The worship was a standard, formal, cathedral evensong, in which most of the action is confined to the ministers and choir, and the congregation stands up and sits down at the right places, and joins in the creed and the grace. No complaints, because sometimes it's lovely to have fantastic scripture and beautiful music just wash over you!

Exactly how long was the sermon?

There was no sermon.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

Before and after the Magnificat, the antiphon O Oriens was sung: "O morning star, splendour of the light eternal and bright sun of righteousness: come and bring light to those who dwell in darkness and walk in the shadow of death." On the shortest day of the year, this, sung so beautifully, brought tears to my eyes, and was a heavenly reminder of the light to come.

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

Well... it was really quite warm in my winter coat, and, together with the fact that the nave was lit up in red and green for the show later in the evening, this made for a rather infernal atmosphere! Seriously, though, most of it wasn't like being in the other place. If pressed, I would say the first lesson, which was some typical Old Testament burning and smiting, and was read in an almost casual, conversational, style, which felt quite inappropriate.

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

Not much. The congregation had already started to drift away by the end of the voluntary, and when I moved down the nave to lurk at the back (and drop my calling card in the collection tin) it became obvious that the audience for the theatrical presentation was already queueing up, so I got out of the way.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

No coffee – though I did wander down to Tesco after the service and have a cup there! I suspect that refreshments would be rather more, er, present, after a Sunday morning service. The cathedral is a fair-trade registered church.

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

7 – I really enjoyed this service, and I will certainly return for evensong again. I'm not sure that I could face the trek up the hill every Sunday, though.

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

Very much so. That six of us, beyond the ministers and choir who have to be there regardless of wind and weather, made the effort to come through the snow to worship on a dark, cold, night, felt very moving.

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

The eerie red and green lighting!

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