St Paul’s is the mother church of London and architect Christopher Wren’s masterpiece. It is the fifth building on the site since the first cathedral, which was consecrated around 693. A large Baroque domed temple adapted and modified for a reformed church and Anglican liturgy, it was, when first completed, like nothing else in Britain. Wren’s St Paul’s survived the Second World War – a fact nothing short of miraculous given that most building around it burned to the ground. Visited by one and one-half million tourists each year, it nevertheless functions fully as a popular place of worship that caters to a range of styles of cathedral worship.
Those visiting St Paul's come from all over the world as well as from the Diocese of London. It has a relatively young, international and multi-cultural following.
The cathedral today is surrounded mostly by offices of the financial services sector that have mostly taken over this part of London.
The cathedral’s organist and two readers – one a layman, the other a woman with a clerical collar.
What was the name of the service?La Nativité du Seigneur (The Nativity of the Lord) by Olivier Messiaen: Nine Meditations for Organ.
How full was the building?
I would guess about 300 under the dome of the cathedral, with a good number of unsuspecting or just curious visitors who sat quietly farther back in the nave. The cathedral is closed to tourists on Sundays – so, probably 500 in all for this event.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
There was a security bag check at the door; the interior of my bag was examined with a torch. Half way up the nave, greeters welcomed us and gave us the service sheet.
Was your pew comfortable?
The modern chair passed muster but was slightly the wrong shape after 40 minutes or so of sitting in what had been billed as an hour-long service.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Most of the large crowd sat quietly and without conversation, which was nice – prompted, I think, by the fact that the cathedral lights were dimmed quite low. It was dark outside so the cathedral looked magnificent in a mysterious way.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
The Advent collect from the Book of Common Prayer: ‘Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness …’
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Just the service sheet, which contained the full texts that had inspired Messiaen’s work. The sheet also included an introduction from the cathedral dean that offered some helpful thoughts on approaching spiritual meditation by using the mind, vision, imagination, what we hear, and the way music touches our feelings. This set the tone for the evening, which was very much approached as a spiritual encounter, not a concert – we were a congregation, not an audience. Also included were descriptions of each of Messiaen’s meditations and an essay about the intimate connection between Messiaen’s spirituality and his music – both written by the cathedral organist.
What musical instruments were played?
Just the organ, a large and much-rebuilt instrument that sits in two cases either side of the choir, though there are pipes in the triforium and at the rear of the nave too. It is a world famous instrument, and the cathedral website say it ‘was built on an epic scale and with absolute attention to detail.’ Even the first (1694) version of the instrument had 27 stops, and over the centuries this has grown to 137. The cathedral organist knows the instrument well and understands better than anyone the way sounds travel around St Paul's resonant acoustic. Some of the meditations were incredibly quiet so that we barely heard the individual notes; others were much more forthright. The last meditation at the climax is a thunderous triumph.
Did anything distract you?
Not a thing. Having meditated on the breath for the 15 minutes before the music and readings started, I then moved to meditating on what entered my ears. I kept my eyes closed throughout. Distractions didn’t get a look-in.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Catholic mysticism of a strikingly original sort, in an Anglican cathedral, with a crowd that seemed pretty international, varied, and mostly under 50 years of age. To emphasise the spiritual intent of this event, a bucket-sized censer was burning incense behind the altar and this was regularly re-charged, creating a dense column of diaphanous smoke rising heavenwards and spreading throughout the dimly lit cathedral. Perhaps the dean should have added to his list of meditation aids the sense of smell! Messiaen was a lifelong Catholic, but his faith was coloured by mysticism, an interest in Indian religions, the idea of prophecy, and his own synaesthetic gifts – he would involuntarily see colours when hearing certain notes and chords.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
There was none – just the readings.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The coming together of music, text, and communal prayerful atmosphere were, as intended by Messiaen, well on the heavenly way.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
As I entered the cathedral, the security staff asked me to unbutton and open my coat, presumably to show I was not wearing a suicide vest. This was a chilling reminder that the second murders on London Bridge took place a short walk away recently, and that they were acts in the name of religion.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
In the service sheet the congregation were asked not to applaud, but to remain seated quietly before leaving the cathedral in silence. This suggestion was almost redundant, as the final meditation – the music for which is climactic and immensely powerful – was received in total and, I suspect, awestruck silence. And after a very long pause we slowly gathered ourselves and made our way.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none – and catering of any kind would have felt wrong.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
10 — I have been to this event in previous years – it seems to have been an annual fixture at St Paul’s for a couple of decades. I shall try very hard to be there for Advent 2020.
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 slow-paced meditative music building to its ineffable resolution.