Mystery Worshipper: Church Mouse
Church: St Columba's Cathedral
Location: Oban, Scotland
Date of visit: Tuesday, 24 December 2013, 6:00pm
A huge neo-Gothic stone church begun in 1932 to replace an earlier one of corrugated iron. It is the work of Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, who designed the Anglican cathedral at Liverpool and the famous red telephone box. There are pillars dividing the interior into two side aisles and a main nave. The west end had a manger scene set up behind the modern font. The main entrance was on the south west corner and the wind blew in whenever the door was opened, so it felt more like a barn than anything else.
The service sheet offered Christmas wishes in Gaelic, Polish, English and Czech, in that order, which suggests those are the communities the cathedral expects to serve.
Oban is a fishing port in the west of Scotland that also is a major ferry port for the islands, particularly Mull and beyond, although most of the day's ferries were cancelled due to the gale blowing (more on that later). Oban also acts as a shopping centre for the area and for the island of Mull. The cathedral overlooks Oban bay and faces out to sea and the island of Kerrera. It is north of the town of Oban, dominating that edge of town and acting as a distinctive landmark. The immediate neighbours are hotels, the youth hostel, and a little used Church of Scotland church.
No information was given at the service or on the website.
What was the name of the service?Blessing of the Crib and Vigil Mass.
How full was the building?
About three-quarters full. I guess the cathedral can seat 800. When we arrived at 5.50pm it was about one-third full, filling from the back. At 6.15pm it was as full as it got, but as people took communion they left, so it was only half full at the end of the service.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
One of the men holding the door said hello. The men from the families in front and behind shook hands at the peace, as did the youngest girl in front.
Was your pew comfortable?
Wooden chairs that weren't particularly comfortable. And although we'd headed to the north-west corner to avoid the worst of the draught, it was still cold.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
It was chatty, full of families with children, some of whom seemed to be catching up.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
No idea. I couldn't hear them. They were drowned out by the massed congregation still chatting, although by this time it was 6.09pm. All I can say is that they were a reading for the blessing of the crib. It was read by a child, and the microphone didn't work very well.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Leaflet with hymns and the congregational words. (My companion downloaded the missal to his phone to read along.)
What musical instruments were played?
Keyboard and guitar. Two cantors, one on the guitar.
Did anything distract you?
The gale blowing outside, which was adding to the difficulties of the struggling sound system. Some of the sound levels were set very loud, others too quiet to be heard over the hubbub of children, the wind and rain.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Informal Catholic: modern sung responses and settings where required. The service started with four readings interspersed with carols during which the different characters of the crib processed down to the crib at the west end of the church. I don't normally attend RC services, but my companion who does said that the mass itself was the most pared down version allowed by the new missal.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
15 minutes: ten minutes directed to the children who came up and sat in front of the altar around the feet of the priest; five minutes addressed to the adults as the children returned to their seats.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
6 – Difficult to judge on what was mostly a children's sermon. He seemed very friendly and warm to the children. One child asked if they were going to hear a story they'd already heard. The priest laughed and said that he got into trouble for that last year.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
That what we should do is let Jesus into our hearts and welcome him there. The children's sermon talked of the Christmas story being told for the first time to children in the East European orphanages and how one child put a second baby into the crib and retold the story to add himself as a gift to Jesus. The adult portion said that we had lost that naivete of childhood, but actually it was our weaknesses and struggles we should offer to Jesus.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Some of the cantors' singing was amazing, particularly the psalm responses and the singing during the preparation of the altar. The child in front of me smiled as I shared the peace with her.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
When the congregation around me were muttering the responses worse than I was, and I'm not even Catholic!
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Nobody hung around afterwards. Those who'd remained for the end of the service beat a speedy exit at the end of the last hymn (Adeste fideles).
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was no after service coffee.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
4 – I am not Catholic and have no intention of converting.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Great to see so many children and families there.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The cold and the wind, both inside and outside.