Southwark Cathedral Exterior

Southwark Cathedral, Southwark, London


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Southwark Cathedral
Location: Southwark, London
Date of visit: Sunday, 6 March 2011, 3:00pm

The building

There has been a church on this site since AD 606. The church that was much later to become a cathedral (not until 1905, as the Cathedral and Collegiate Church of St Saviour and St Mary Overie) was built between 1208 and 1520 and was the first Gothic church in London. Through the centuries it was damaged several times by fire and then rebuilt. It was almost demolished in the early 19th century but was spared after much argument. The architect Sir Arthur Blomfield, who designed the Royal College of Music and the Fleet Street law courts, restored the church in 1897, adding many Victorian touches through which can still be seen remnants of the old medieval church.

The church

John Harvard, first benefactor of the college in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that bears his name, was baptised here. One of William Shakespeare's brothers is buried here. As well as being the cathedral for the diocese of Southwark, it also serves as a parish church to the immediate surrounding area.

The neighborhood

This was until fairly recently a very run down part of London. Since the opening of the New Globe Theatre in 1997, the area has become rather touristy, with an abundance of bars and restaurants. The Borough Market next door to the cathedral, once a traditional fruit and vegetable market, has become quite an upmarket venue selling expensive goods.

The cast

The Rt Revd Richard Cheetham, Bishop of Kingston-upon-Thames; the Rt Revd Nick Baines, Bishop of Croydon; the Revd Canon Andrew Nunn, Acting Dean and Precentor of Southwark; the Venerable Sheila Watson, Archdeacon of Canterbury; the Revd Anna Macham, Succentor – along with other representatives of other denominations and faiths.

What was the name of the service?

Enthronement of the Rt Revd Christopher Chessun as the Tenth Bishop of Southwark.

How full was the building?

Full to bursting. Extra chairs had been put out and large television screens were placed around the building, as from many of the seats it wasn't possible to see what was going on. Even though I had arrived early, a lot more people had arrived earlier still, so the cathedral was already pretty packed. I found a seat in the retro-quire, where there was no view of the proceedings at all apart from the monitors. Others who arrived later had to make do with sitting in a marquee outside the main building. There were probably about 1500 in the congregation.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

A steward was on the door welcoming people as they arrived.

Was your pew comfortable?

No. It was a hard backed chair and very cramped. When people were standing, it wasn't very easy to see the TV screen.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

There was a lot of bustle as people were looking for seats.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

I caught the words "Brothers and sisters..." from the acting dean, but the rest was lost as people around me realised the service was starting. It's strange how people can make so much noise while trying to be quiet!

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Specially printed service booklet.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ and superb choir. I couldn't help noticing that one of the choir members bore an uncanny resemblance to the TV chef Rick Stein.

Did anything distract you?

The sound of slow moving trains travelling between Charing Cross and London Bridge passing close to the cathedral. At the actual enthronement, I was amused by the rubric, which read: "The Archdeacon of Canterbury, holding the mandate of the Archbishop of Canterbury in her hand, causes the Bishop to be seated in the cathedra." For me, this conjured up a vision of the archdeacon hitting the bishop repeatedly around the head until he sat down. Sadly, the reality was nothing as fun as that!

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

Church of England worship at its best! The service was in the context of Book of Common Prayer choral evensong. After the main procession, the acting dean formally welcomed the Archdeacon of Canterbury. The bewigged chancellor then read the mandate from the Archbishop of Canterbury. They then processed to the back of the cathedral to welcome the new bishop, who was presented with the diocesan stole and cope. The succentor and the choir sang the office. Unfortunately, the succentor had no microphone. I'm sure that sounded fine in the main body of the cathedral, but in the retro-quire we could hardly hear her and the words of the collects were not at all intelligible. The other bishops present anointed the hands of Bishop Christopher with oil and presented him with the episcopal ring. At the end of the service, the Rt Revd Dr Tom Butler, retired Bishop of Southwark, handed the diocesan crozier to the new bishop.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

13 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

8 – I liked the homely examples that the new bishop gave to illustrate his duties.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Bishop Christopher spoke about his responsibility as the new diocesan bishop, stating that whatever we do in life, we do for God. He spoke about the relationship a shepherd has for his sheep, highlighting his own pastoral role, and reminding us that we are all called to trust, respect and love one another.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The whole sense of occasion. The music was superb, and it felt very special to be present with so many people worshipping God as we welcomed our new bishop.

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

Maybe because we weren't in the main body of the cathedral, but a few people appeared to have forgotten that this was an act of worship and seemed to think that the choral parts of the service were there as an opportunity to have a chat. As well as being distracting, I also thought it extremely rude.

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

The entire congregation (all 1500 of us) processed out of the cathedral to the bank of the River Thames, where the bishop blessed the city and the diocese. This was done with a megaphone. With that many people milling around there was no chance to look lost!

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Following the service there was a reception at the Glaziers Hall conference centre opposite the cathedral. Tea and coffee were served. I had tea. It was cold.

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

8 – You don't enthrone a bishop every day, but if the splendour of this service is indicative of the regular goings-on at Southwark, I could take it!

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 classic Anglican pomp and ceremony.

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