|490: Southwell Minster, Nottinghamshire, England|
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Mystery Worshipper: Requiem & Erish.
The church: Southwell Minster, (The Cathedral & Parish Church of The Blessed Virgin Mary), Southwell, Nottinghamshire, England.
Denomination: Church of England.
The building: A magnificent cathedral, with a 12th century Norman nave, and 13th century quire. Also a rather gloriously carved chapter house, although you don't get to see that during the regular worship services! The building has grown over the centuries, with each addition being in the latest and most up-to-date style. We were in an imposing space between massive stone columns supporting three tiers of rounded norman arches. Further east, the style becomes more intricate and Gothic with delicate carved detailing. Particularly impressive are the clusters of carved leaves each one unique. The whole is a soft cappucino coloured stone, gentled by centuries of use.
The church: Southwell is a small town, about half an hour's drive from Nottingham, but has the Anglical Cathedral of the City of Nottingham. I think it's the only city where the cathedral is actually located somewhere else.
The neighbourhood: The town (what we saw of it) seemed small, but picturesque, with lots of nice Georgian houses. It's got Civil War connotations too: Charles I hid out here before being arrested, and Oliver Cromwell's Roundheads kept their cavalry in the Minster.
The cast: Celebrant: Rev. Canon Ian Collins (precentor of the cathedral ) assisted by sundry other priests, deacons and altar servers. Sermon given by the Bishop of Leicester.
What was the name of the service?
We were aiming for the 11am Sung Eucharist (Book of Common Prayer) as advertised on their website. What we got was the latter 3/4 of the 10:30am special service: The Eucharist for the Patronal Festival: Candlemas Presentation of Christ in the Temple.
How full was the building?
The front half of the nave was pretty crammed, with the back about half full. Not bad, considering the size and length of the building. Most of the congregation seemed to fall into the over- 60 brigade, with a smattering of younger families here and there. There were even three nuns in the congregation! We were slightly underdressed, but not made to feel unwelcome because of that.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
A whispered "do you want to come in?" from an usher, who then handed us a service sheet, a hymn book, and an unlit candle.
Was your pew comfortable?
Definitely not. Seating was rows of wooden chairs, jammed so tightly together that you either had to invade your neighbour's personal space, or else leave an unsociable seat empty between you. No cushions, and the seat of the chairs was constructed out of two pieces, so as to give a slight valley-like dip in the middle.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Don't know we were late. Not our fault. Honest. If the church had an updated website... Actually, we were only two of several stragglers who all were also expecting an 11am service.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
According to the Order of Service booklet, it was "Hymn" followed by "In the name of the Father..."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The New English Hymnal and a printed booklet containing the order of service. The liturgy was taken from Common Worship.
What musical instruments were played?
A rather magnificent organ, played tastefully with dignity and great restraint. Unusual when it comes to organists. There was also a choir.
Did anything distract you?
The architecture. It's hard to stay focused when there's Victorian stained glass all around you, a great stained glass window of angels behind you, huge stone Norman pillars lifting your gaze heavenward... and a rather out of place modern statue of a flying gold plated Jesus suspended over the altar. The latter was not a pleasant distraction.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The service was extremely high church. Robes, altar servers, huge clouds of incense, bowing, genuflecting, the lot. Erish had to pinch herself to remember that this wasn't a Catholic mass. Singing was sedate, traditional hymns, including two to the Virgin Mary, to whom the Cathedral is dedicated. The Choir performed most of the mass parts, which (according to the website) were from Schubert's Mass in C, and a rather angelic sounding motet during communion. Definitely no arm waving, unless you count the priest who made a very vigorous sign of the cross with each consecrated host before administering it to the communicant.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
12 minutes. Felt a lot longer, too.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
About a 4. He was earnest, very sincere, and obviously polished in his delivery. It's just that he seemed somehow to lack focus. No jokes either, although this may not have been an entirely bad thing.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
When we sat down to write this report, two hours after the service, neither of us could remember. Requiem was struggling to follow it at the time. He talked about a lot of things, really. About holiness being living with contradictions: the temple as it was in Jesus' time, and the temple in war-torn Jerusalem now. He seemed to be trying to cram an awful lot of different points into one sermon. In doing so, he lost any sense of focus.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
For Erish: Receiving communion. Kneeling at the altar, with the choir's singing echoing around me, the smell of incense hanging in the air, and a beautifully vestmented priest offering me the Body of Christ... heaven must be close to this. (And OK, yes, I'm a sucker for pomp and tat!) For Requiem: The candles. We were each given an unlit candle at the start of the service, and I spent most of the sermon playing with it. Towards the end we all lit up and processed, singing and candle waving, in a great circle through the magnificent church. This was my first glimpse of the ornate, Gothic space behind the nave altar. It was fantastic to see it as part of the service, rather than as a gawping sightseer. I'm really not sure what the processing and candles were all about, but rather late in the service, I finally felt as if I were participating rather than observing.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Walking in late, particularly when we were aiming for 10 minutes early. Note to any church: if you have a webpage that lists service times, please keep it updated with any "special services" and alterations.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
A man came up and took our candles from us. Then, as we were combining looking lost with looking at the pretty windows, we received a very enthusiastic greeting from a former vicar at the cathedral. He didn't tell us his name ("who I am doesn't matter, who are you?") and greeted our every revelation about our occupations, etc with a genuine, heartfelt "WONDERFUL!" As we went to leave the church, the priest-at-the-door also seemed to notice that we were new, and asked us where we were from, why we were here, and so on. They definitely score major points on the welcoming bit.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
The notice leaflet invited all visitors to join them for "drinks and nibbles in the Great Hall". This sounded highly promising. However, we couldn't find the Great Hall. Following everyone out of the church simply led us to the gift shop and tea room, which does do a nice lunch, but definitely wasn't a Great Hall.
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 Erish: If I were CofE, and if it wasn't half an hour's drive away, I'd be a regular visitor. Requiem: After a slow start, I found myself being swept up by the service. The cathedral seems to have become the nucleus for a real community. That, in combination with the friendly clergy, and the incredible building, would keep me coming back. Alas, the four hour drive prevents it.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
The person we spoke to afterwards was a great reminder of God's joy. And the cathedral building itself made us very glad to be a part of a church with such a tradition.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The sense that a living and vital community of faith was carrying on the tradition of worship in this centuries-old building.