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217: King's College Chapel, Cambridge, England
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King's College Chapel, Cambridge
Mystery Worshipper: Ida Dora Plaws.
The church: King's College Chapel, Cambridge, England.
Denomination: Church of England.
The building: Famous collegiate chapel completed in the time of Henry VIII, with stunning windows and acoustics, and with magnificent fan vaulting which has been called "the noblest stone ceiling in existence". The chapel took over a century to build: the foundation stone was laid by King Henry VI in 1446 and the work was completed by 1547, at the end of Henry VIII's reign. In contrast, the fan vaulting took just three years to build.
The neighbourhood: This is the largest of several college chapels within in the precincts of the individual colleges in Cambridge.
The cast: There was no preacher. The combined choirs of King's College and St John's College were directed by Stephen Cleobury and Christopher Robinson respectively. I don't know the name of the officiating clergywoman.
What was the name of the service?
Daily Choral Evensong.

How full was the building?
The quire was full, with several hundred people.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
A verger gave precise instructions as to where we were to sit (certain places of honor were held for college members and choir parents), told us no photography was permitted, and handed us an order of service. One verger in particular seemed to knew some folk at the head of the queue, and they were having a grand time. The rest of us were herded like cattle.

Was your pew comfortable?
The individual cathedral-type chairs were fine.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Like before a concert or show. The audible, normal conversation created quite a din in that acoustic. Even the organ prelude (a stunning performance of one of the Franck chorales by one of the organ scholars) didn't quite drown this determined, chatty group, most of whom I learned later were parents of the choristers, for whom I guess this was just another gig, rather than worship.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
The officiating clergywoman uttered something totally incoherent, so I don't know. When she sang, I did understand her weak intonation to be: "O Lord, open thou our lips."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
A printed order of service contained the service details and the text of the one hymn.

What musical instruments were played?
Organ, plus the combined choirs, arguably the two best choirs of their type in the world.

Did anything distract you?
Oh dear, where do I start? The officiant was entirely ineffectual – she simply could not be heard – likewise for the readers of the two lessons. Instead of singing the psalms appointed for the day, the combined choirs sang an anthem by Purcell (beautifully, of course), the words of which were, in fact, taken from a psalm, but this had nothing to do with the singing of the Psalter, which I was taught was central to the office. After the serivce, the postlude (again, a stunning performance by one of the organ scholars, of a Widor symphony movement) was greeted with an even greater din of loud conversation which rose to shouting among the audience, competing with the great King's organ. The organ won, but just barely.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was straight Prayer Book Anglican evensong, except for the psalm matter mentioned.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
There was no sermon.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The stunning setting, the magnificant organ played extraordinarily well, and the thrilling sound of the choirs in their loudest and softest moments. Also the knowledge that we were joining in a countless throng of pilgrims who have worshipped (or tried to) in this place over the ages.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The utterly secular atmosphere on the part of the congregation. This was not an offering to God, it was a concert. It was the sort of affair that gives choral worship the bad rap that some clergy are only too eager to use as an argument against good music in the church. The college officials really ought to find a way to fix this. Other well-known churches in Britain seem to have overcome this challenge.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
There were lots of visitors leaving the west entrance. We were all greeted with a retiring collection for the work of the college. I suggest using the money raised to add a few vergers to enfore reverence at all times in the chapel.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
None was offered, nor was any needed in this situation. We headed for the nearest pub.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 – if I lived in the area, I would visit often.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Not really. I was embarrassed at the secular feel and the rowdiness, and I felt bad for any who had come there under the assumption that they were plugging into a centuries-old offering of daily worship.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The combined choirs' magnificent anthem (Stanford – "For lo, I rise up"), which concludes, after much thunder and rage, in a very dramatic, quiet way, with the text "The Lord is in his holy temple, let all the earth keep silence before him." As I said to the person seated next to me, there was little chance of that in King's Chapel that day!
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