Mystery Worshipper: Aisla Sloper
Church: Manchester Cathedral
Date of visit: Wednesday, 5 September 2018, 1:10pm
Photo: © Michael D Beckwith and used under license There is a lot to say about the Cathedral Church of St Mary, St Denys and St George – too much for one report. Their website gives a brief account with a timeline up to the IRA bomb in 1996, and a booklet for sale at the cathedral is full of excellent illustrations and is fascinating to read. Work on the present building, in late mediaeval perpendicular style, began in 1421. At the Reformation the eight side chapels (chantries) were incorporated into the main church. This has resulted in the cathedral looking strangely wide and it is still 'the broadest church in England' in the architectural sense. Major restorations of the tower (which was rebuilt) and the nave (which was replaced stone for stone) took place in the mid-19th century, and at present the tower is again undergoing structural repairs and is wrapped in scaffolding and blue windbreak – it looks like a giant parcel. The ring of 10 bells, tenor weighing 1.3 tons, is currently silent for the same reason. In December 1940 the northeast corner was destroyed by a land mine drooped during the Manchester blitz. All the old stained glass was destroyed. Further damage occurred in June 1996 when the IRA detonated a 1,500-kilogram (3,300 lb) bomb in the city centre, which damage included destruction of the Fire Window – a modern work that commemorated the anniversary of the Battle of the Somme and the 1940 bomb.
In 1745 Bonnie Prince Charlie occupied Manchester and attended morning service here. Somewhere I read that many Manchester young ladies could be seen walking to church that Sunday escorted by dashing young Jacobite soldiers who had been billeted on their parents. In 1787 the first mass meeting for the abolition of the British slave trade was held in the church. Today the cathedral seems a very vibrant place with a busy programme of worship, concerts, exhibitions, drama, poetry, a gin festival (!) and more. At present the cathedral is hosting 20 bee sculptures, 'Little Bees' – although they're quite large – part of the 'Bee in the City' art trail. I noticed bees decorated by primary schools, a Catholic secondary school, the iconic Salford Lads Club and a senior citizens' social club. This last was particularly fun as they'd given their bee 'bingo wings.'
A few hundred yards away, where the National Football Museum now stands, was the filthy teeming slum described by Friedrich Engels in his seminal 1845 book The Condition of the Working Class in England. The city centre was so extensively damaged by the 1996 IRA bomb that it provided an opportunity for a complete remodelling of the area around the cathedral, which became the Millennium Quarter, now popular and continually busy with locals and tourists. The cathedral used to be stranded on a sort of horrible traffic island surrounded by furiously busy roads. These days it's easy and safe to reach on foot and is surrounded by pedestrian areas, seating, gardens, and water features. Nearby are the National Football Museum, Chetham's Library (the oldest free public reference library in the English-speaking world) and Manchester Arena – the venue for the Ariana Grande concert that was targeted by an Islamist suicide bomber in May 2017.
The dean of Manchester led the service and preached. Another priest assisted with communion.
What was the name of the service?Holy Communion.
How full was the building?
The cathedral is open freely to all every day, and there is a steady stream of visitors, even whilst a service is taking place. (Personally I'm all in favour of this attitude.) Even so, I counted only 15 in the congregation plus the dean and the assisting priest. One person left immediately after the sermon – possibly to get back to work. I noticed a couple of young people dressed for the office who did not attend the service but who each lit a candle, said a prayer, then left.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
There were plenty of cathedral volunteers welcoming people in and showing visitors around. I knew roughly where to go, so I headed purposefully in that direction and left them alone to look after the tourists. A gentleman in clerical garb sat down near me and gave me a friendly smile.
Was your pew comfortable?
It was a modern upholstered wooden seat with a place at the side for service books and Bible.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quite chatty to start with. A gentleman on the front row, who clearly knew a great deal about the cathedral, was explaining carvings and statues to his neighbours. It was so interesting that I eavesdropped. As the time for the service drew nearer, the chat fell away to whispers, and by ten past one everyone was silent. I should point out that the service was held within the choir screen and people were still quietly coming and going outside.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
'Good afternoon and welcome to our midday communion service.'
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Common Worship – the order for Holy Communion.
What musical instruments were played?
Did anything distract you?
Being within the choir screen, beautiful and ancient though it is, is a bit like being in a cage. I couldn't help occasionally noticing people outside wandering about taking photos in the sunlight. I have to say, though, that everyone was very quiet and respectful and no one stared at us in our mediaeval cage.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Standard C of E Common Worship, straight out of the book.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 — I'm tempted to give the dean a 10, but perhaps 7 minutes is a bit too short to judge. He was straightforward and uncompromising without haranguing us (yet – read on) or being remotely patronising. Impressive.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Christianity in action. He said quite forcefully that he was tired of hearing people say that their first priority was to get their Christian beliefs sorted out. Christ's priority was to help people in a practical fashion, and that should be our priority. If we need help, we should ask God to help us. If we see another who needs help, we should help them.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
It wasn't quite that bad, but we got a little bit of a telling-off from the dean for giving the responses as if we were asleep. It was a hot afternoon and Common Worship can be a bit soporific if you know it by heart. We giggled shamefacedly and had another go, but I don't suppose we sounded much better.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
The dean seemed to be available to anyone who wanted to talk to him. One young woman obviously did, so everyone else cleared off out of the way. I went to get a photo permit from the cathedral guides. They'd run out, so I handed over my pound and they promised I now had a virtual permit. They were very friendly and good-natured.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
No refreshments in the cathedral itself. Just opposite is the cathedral tea room, which does a very nice bacon (local) buttie and a proper pot of tea (fair trade) at reasonable prices. They also sell honey from hives on the cathedral roof, but unfortunately it's out of stock until autumn.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 — I would be keen to listen to any number of sermons of that quality.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The idea that Christianity is, first and foremost, a practical religion and we have got to put it into practice. It seemed to me an attitude quite typical of Manchester.