Occupying part of the site of an abbey founded just before the Norman Invasion of England in 1066, the Cathedral Church of St James and St Edmund, as we see it today, has a handsome long, lofty nave dating from about 1500. Containing the shrine of St Edmund (d.869), the abbey became an important pilgrimage site and one of the largest and most prosperous in England. The abbey was dissolved in the Reformation just 30 or so year after the nave of the present church was finished, and almost all of the colossal abbey church that stood next to the current cathedral is gone. Two magnificent abbey gateways survive, however, flanking the cathedral of today. What is now the cathedral nave was probably supervised by John Wastel, the mason also substantially responsible for Kings College Cambridge chapel. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the cathedral we see today is that it was continued in the Gothic style in the 20th and early 21st century. Wastell's long nave was given a crossing, tall tower, transepts and choir, the work being finished to the designs of the Gothic Revivalist Stephen Dykes-Bower as recently as 2005.
Their website says that the Pilgrims’ Kitchen is open every day for lunch, tea, coffee, cakes and scones, but we found it closed. Persons interested in attending Sunday services must pre-book before Thursday of the week. Pre-booking is not required for services during the week, but attendees are requested to follow the verger’s instructions as to how to keep social distance. A full array of services is also live-streamed.
Bury St Edmunds was historically the county town of Suffolk and it still retains some of the county-wide functions as a social, business and administrative hub. It boasts a fine collection of old houses and prosperous residents. A large and attractive civic park in the town centre, occupying the lands that were once the abbey precinct, gives an impression of the scale on which the once-mighty abbey was laid out. The cathedral is quite closely surrounded by houses on three sides and is difficult to get a good view of except from the cathedral cloisters or through the park trees.
The celebrant, deacon, visiting preacher, three servers in the nave and a ‘socially distanced’ choir far away in the quire of the cathedral; plus ‘the lady behind the flowers’ (see below).
What was the name of the service?Choral Eucharist.
How full was the building?
As full as is allowed under current COVID-19 regulations: 90 worshippers, carefully spaced out across the pews – or rather, every third pew and wide apart. The nave seemed very large and we wondered whether this number wasn't a cautious interpretation of the rules. Perhaps caution is the best counsel.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
We had reserved our place at the service by e-mailing a request as detailed on the cathedral website. We learned the evening before that we were successful in the allocation of spaces for the live service. We were asked to present ourselves 30 minutes in advance of the service starting. Three welcomers were on duty to invite us to sanitise our hands and show us to our pew, which turned out to be right in the front row. Nobody in England sits in the front row in church voluntarily – we much prefer to skulk in the middle ranks; but it was nice to get a good view of things for a change. There was then a half hour wait in near silence.
Was your pew comfortable?
The old-school pews were comfortable, sturdy and attractive; though the pew-front (as we were sitting in the front row) was very wobbly, so no use for kneeling or steadying one's standing and sitting.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Mostly quiet and reverent. There was organ music for the last five minutes of the 30 minutes waiting time.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
After the now statutory instructions about wearing masks and not singing, etc., the precentor started with ‘In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.’
What books did the congregation use during the service?
There were nicely produced service booklets, very clearly set out. For those who wanted to follow the readings and details of that day, a download of the service sheet was available and I used this, reading from my mobile phone. That is tricky if you wear glasses, given that face masks cause glasses to fog up somewhat.
What musical instruments were played?
The fine cathedral organ was played to accompany the socially distanced choir, who sang Jean Langlais' Missa ‘in Simplicitate’. I think the social distancing meant not only that the choir were a long way away from us (I guess that is usual in that cathedral, given the layout) but also that they were reduced in numbers in order to be distanced from each other too. It looked as though there were six of them; in such a large resonant acoustic, double that number would have helped Langlais' expressive setting to come across to us. As it was, they were musically as well as socially distanced and a little swamped by the organ.
Did anything distract you?
Partially disguised behind a strategically large flower arrangement near to us was the mixing desk for the live streamed version of the service. A lady there was doing sound and vision. There were moments when she could have used a studio assistant to help to fade the several microphones in and out seamlessly; she also had to leave her station at several points to adjust camera angles. Like many churches, St Edmundsbury is learning on the job how to improvise live outside broadcasts of services while keeping the recognisable shape of the live version.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Modern catholic liturgy done with simple dignity. There was a procession up the nave, which slightly surprised me, as this seems to have been dropped in many churches for social distancing. And of course no contact in the peace. Communion was only in one kind, carefully managed by the welcome team to avoid queues.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 — The visiting preacher was clear, used the microphone well, and made points rooted in the readings of the day. He avoided chumminess, clichés, and corny jokes, but ended with contemporary practical points.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Kenosis (ancient Greek: self-emptying, depleting, expending). In particular, he spoke about the self-emptying love of Jesus for mankind, of its giving rather than taking nature. Jesus was in the form of God but did not grasp at equality with God as something to be exploited. Again and again Jesus refuses to claim authority for himself: in the wilderness, before Pilate, and in today's gospel (Matthew 21:23-32, Jesus’ authority questioned by the chief priests). This is not merely the self-denial of the ascetic, but done in order that Jesus' self-emptying may be in the service of others. Paul's injunction is to ‘let the same mind be in you as it was in Christ Jesus.’ In our lives, we might practice self-emptying by dealing with our egos and graspingness and not taking or claiming our rights, but instead giving up ourselves to give ourselves, turning our consumption into generosity, taking power to give it to others, slow to claim our rights and faster to support the rights of others.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Beautiful Bach organ chorale after the fine sermon gave space for its powerful messages to sink in.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The torments of hell are normally associated with fiery heat, but the cold in the cathedral was palpable and definitely devilish. By the start of the service (30 minutes after our arrival) we were cold in our overcoats. By the end of the service we were pleased to escape to the noticeably warmer air outside the cathedral (even though it was a grey autumnal day) where we could stamp our feet and re-start our circulation with a brisk walk. We concluded there was no heating at all – or that if there was, it had gone on the blink.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
We were asked to leave promptly without socialising, to avoid contagion – and we did as we were told.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
None today. (On previous visits to the cathedral I have found a tasty, good value lunch in the café off the cloister.)
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 — I would love to return on a warm day (or when the heating is fixed) and social distancing is a past memory. Not singing hymns, being so spaced out in a large church like this ,and all the other trappings of social distancing is a strangely unfriendly experience. But St Edmundsbury seems in all other respects to be my kind of church – or it would be in normal times.
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 sermon (warmly) and the cold, just so.