Mystery Worshipper: Cantate Domino
Church: Holy Trinity Cathedral
Location: Auckland, New Zealand
Date of visit: Sunday, 11 April 2010, 5:00pm
: It is a true oddity. The brick east end and transepts are very austere versions of England's Guildford Cathedral (itself hardly an opulent building). The design is the result of an early-20th century competition, the execution of which was then scuppered by the outbreak of World War II. The design was reduced in size by 50 per cent and lost its planned tower. Even then the diocese couldn't afford to finish the nave. It wasn't until 1994 that a nave was built, totally modern in design and vaguely based on Polynesian architecture with very flamboyant stained glass. The building thus looks like the bastard child of Guildford Cathedral and a tent. Were the Anglican Communion to hold a competition for the weirdest cathedral, this one would surely win.
It runs the typical range of Anglican cathedral services with morning prayer, eucharists, Prayer Book choral evensong, and weekly services. Some of these feature choirs of boys, girls and men. Within the cathedral is the Marsden Chapel (where this evening's service was held) in memory of Samuel Marsden, known in Australia as the flogging parson, but who has a more positive reputation in New Zealand as the nation's apostle, for it was he who conducted the first Christian service on New Zealand soil. The cathedral is currently looking for a new dean and the diocese has just gained a new bishop.
Auckland, New Zealand's largest commercial centre, lies on the North Island on a narrow isthmus. Thus, the city has two harbours on separate major bodies of water. It straddles a volcanic field whose volcanoes (all extinct, although the field itself is merely dormant) consist of cones (mostly quarried away), lakes, lagoons, islands and depressions. The city enjoys a mild climate. The cathedral is on the edge of the Auckland Domain, a large park, and is some way from the centre of Auckland. Nearby is the huge War Memorial Museum (a vastly more impressive building than the cathedral), the Winter Garden and Fernery, and many trendy shops and restaurants in the gentrified streets.
The Revd Deacon Sarah Stevens.
What was the name of the service?Compline
How full was the building?
The small Marsden Chapel was full with 22 people, six of whom made up this Mystery Worshipper's party! I fear that without us the crowd would have seemed a bit more sparse. There was, however, even in this small group a range of ages and ethnicities.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
We were given the cathedral newsletter by a sideswoman and found our own seats.
Was your pew comfortable?
Fine, just a plain bench.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Delightful, as I could hear the cicadas chirping outside. The inside was totally quiet and the light in the chapel was dim.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Welcome to Night Prayer."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The New Zealand Prayer Book. Some of the service was read out in the Maori language.
What musical instruments were played?
None. The cathedral has a mighty organ, but this was a said service.
Did anything distract you?
I distracted myself. I'd not seen the New Zealand Prayer Book before, and at times when I should have been paying more attention, I was leafing through it, reading its preface and comparing to the Prayer Book for Australia. Had I looked around the cathedral before the service rather than after, I couldnt have but been distracted by the most hideous cathedral furnishings I've ever seen (and I've been to Chichester Cathedral). Hanging from the nave ceiling is a large red orchid-like object, a big, bulbous round thing that can be lowered or raised to assist with acoustics in the nave. So useful, but repulsive.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Traditional, restrained cathedral worship. The deacon was vested in cassock, surplice and scarf. There were no genuflections and, apart from standing and sitting at the appropriate moments, no real ceremony at all.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Deacon Stevens was clearly profoundly religious. The service was conducted with a great intensity, but it was a quiet intensity that drew one in. I was greatly impressed by the strength of her faith and the joy in this faith that she communicated to us. She clearly has pure thoughts every minute of the day.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
It was hard to be in the other place with so religious an officiant. However, looking around, one constantly saw a compromised architectural scheme, the failure of the church to build with faith and vision, and the truly vulgar components of the failed design. There is also a glaring error in one of the stained glass windows. "Ego sum" (as in "I am the resurrection and the life") ended up as "Ergo sum" (as in "I think, therefore I am"). The nearby University of Auckland has a classics department, and I was told that the cathedral regularly receives complaints about this gaffe from good Latinists. However, my proposed solution of bringing in an iconoclastic mob to smash the offending window was rejected by other worshippers.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Along with my entourage, I went off to explore the cathedral and marvel at its weirdness. We were especially amused by the joyously tasteless conjunction of the gothic crossing with the modern nave, where no attempt has been made to harmonise the two halves of the building.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Nothing so tedious as coffee. The exceptionally kind deacon offered to show us the historic St Mary's Church, which is in the cathedral precinct (having been moved there in 1892 from across the road and rotated 90 degrees!). That church is as beautiful as the cathedral is peculiar. It is a 19th century church built with ancient and very aromatic timbers. The deacon kindly switched on the lights and found some pamphlets on the church and its windows.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
10 – I could easily close my eyes against the fey decor and immerse myself in the spirituality of the worship.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, and especially glad to be an Anglican. Worshipping in the company of my party of friends and colleagues also added to the pleasure of the occasion.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
A truly bizarre cathedral but an extremely spiritual officiant.