The oldest part of the Cathedral Church of St Peter and St Wilfrid is also the oldest part of any church in England – the crypt, which is all that remains of the original stone church built by St Wilfrid, dates from 672. Standing at the west door after entering, one sees two unique features: a lop-sided Norman arch at the end of the nave and a ceiling that turns slightly to the left behind the next arch. These quirks came about after the central Norman tower collapsed in 1450; the rebuilding process was incomplete and produced asymmetrical lines. In the choir stalls under the misericords there are picturesque carvings completed in 1494. One of these shows two rabbits being chased by a griffin, one of which is disappearing down a hole. It has been speculated that Lewis Carroll, whose father was a canon at this cathedral, was inspired by this depiction when he wrote Alice in Wonderland. As a tribute to Carroll there is a carving of a smiling 'Cheshire cat' in the south transept ceiling. A remarkable sight is a mechanical wooden hand – built in 1695 – jutting out above the entrance arch to the quire, which the organist could activate with a foot pedal, allowing him to direct the choir while playing the organ. To the right and left of the high altar are two metal silhouettes of World War I soldiers, standing guard with rifles and bowed heads in front of the east wall, on which the names of the fallen soldiers of Ripon, who died 1914-1918, are engraved. Such silhouettes were set up last year in several English cathedrals at the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended WWI.
In 2014 a program was initiated called Growing God’s Kingdom, a comprehensive strategy for developing a vision of mission and outreach. The idea is to use the resources of Ripon Cathedral in a way that enhances and enriches the lives of the people who live in the diocese, providing, for example, a spiritual home for military communities; cooperating with agricultural groups; supporting the Salvation Army food bank; assisting people with dementia. The cathedral is a location for art exhibits and cultural events. A major emphasis is to increase attendance at services and maintain the traditions of formal cathedral worship, as well as to experiment with new forms of worship. There is, for example, a children’s service called Messy Cathedral.
Ripon is a small market city in Northern Yorkshire, 1,300 years old, with a population of 16,700. It is one of the gateways to the popular Yorkshire Dales. A tradition that has been maintained since 886 is the blowing of a horn every day at 9.00pm at the market place by the Ripon Hornblower.
The dean, a subdeacon, and two canons led the service.
What was the name of the service?Sung Eucharist with Imposition of Ashes.
How full was the building?
The congregation sat in the area between the high altar and the quire. The seating in this space was filled to two-thirds capacity by about 60 people.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
A person handing out the programs greeted us with a friendly nod.
Was your pew comfortable?
The chair was comfortable.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quiet and subdued.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
‘Good evening, everyone! Welcome to this cathedral. Welcome to this Ash Wednesday service.’
What books did the congregation use during the service?
No books. The programs contained all of the words of the service.
What musical instruments were played?
The organ, built by Lewis and Company, Brixton, in 1878 and rebuilt by Harrison & Harrison Ltd of Dunham in 1912.
Did anything distract you?
A mild distraction was a young man with blue-tinted hair. Another occurred during communion: there was a moment of uncertainty as to whether or not I would get any wine, as the two chalice bearers apparently thought that the other had already served me; such ‘human’ moments make worship enjoyable. The actual distractions occurred during the organ postlude, which is theoretically a time for quiet contemplation and prayer, as people talked with each other with animation in the worship area, greeting one another heartily. However, this was a pleasant distraction because it was a sign that a real congregation was present and not a random collection of visitors.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Cathedral worship is, of course, formal high church. There was incense, eucharistic vestments, an exceptional choir of lay clerks singing the words of the service, using Byrd’s Mass for Three Voices and a motet by Tallis. The clergy who lead worship are invariably articulate and have a tone of voice that is cordial and unpretentious and expresses seriousness of purpose. This unpretentious quality of cathedral worship became especially apparent during the first scripture reading, done by a lay person who perhaps put too much emotion and emphasis into his voice, something that otherwise never occurs in a cathedral.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 — The sermon was appropriate to this service.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The sermon was about the woman caught in adultery who was brought to Jesus to determine her fate (John 8:1-11). The crowd surrounding Jesus was reminiscent of the mobs who attended public executions, gloating over the fate of the victim. When Jesus said, ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her,’ he was challenging the woman’s accusers to see the darkness in their own hearts. They recognized their true condition and withdrew. Jesus forgave the adulteress, as he forgives us, offering her a new start. We should never forget our sinfulness but should live as people who know that they have been forgiven by God’s mercy, grace and love, so that we will become merciful and forgiving to others. This incident of a woman brought to Jesus by a hostile mob is a preview of what would happen to Jesus when he was brought to trial, surrounded by a mob aggressively demanding his execution.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Cathedral worship conveys heavenly glory – not by disregarding human misery and depravity, but by articulating it within the framework of Christian faith, expressing this faith with eloquent language and with the finest musical skills, in a setting of precious artwork and monumental architecture.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
At the imposition of ashes in the form of a cross on the brows of the worshipers, the solemn words were spoken: ‘Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.’ At this moment I experienced my frailty, mortality and utter dependence upon the grace of God.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
In the vastness of a cathedral no one notices a person standing around looking lost.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
None, but there is after-service coffee every Sunday.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 — Ripon Cathedral is one of my favourites because it is not overwhelmingly huge. No cathedral could be called ‘cosy,’ but this one comes close. The friendliness of the clergy, who greet visitors at the end of services, strikes me as genuine. Because this cathedral is also a parish church, there is a feeling of community at worship.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Undoubtedly, because the Anglican style of worship preserves and celebrates the historic faith of Christianity.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
I can't get out of my mind the two metal silhouettes of World War I soldiers standing guard in front of the east wall. Their ghostly outlines seem to be saying: ‘We, and those we represent, are part of the invisible multitude who are present when a congregation celebrates worship.’ Standing in the holiest part of the cathedral, they convey to me the promise that even the senseless carnage of a world war will in some way be incorporated into the ultimate triumph of God’s glory, giving meaning to that which is momentarily incomprehensible.