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  1183: Winchester Cathedral, Hampshire, England

Winchester Cathedral, Hampshire, England
Photo: Barry Samuels

Mystery Worshipper: Roundabout.
The church: Cathedral Church of the Holy Trinity, St Peter, St Paul and St Swithun (they prefer simply to call themselves Winchester Cathedral), Winchester, Hampshire, England.
Denomination: Church of England.
The building: A typical English medieval cathedral: Gothic towers, flying buttresses, detailed carvings and stained glass windows a-plenty. Winchester Cathedral is one of the most famous of its type in southern England. There has been a church here since the 7th century, and the sense of history is palpable. The cathedral is surrounded by a close including several historic buildings.
The church: As a cathedral, it claims to attract a congregation from a wider area than its immediate geography. However, this was not in evidence at the service I attended.
The neighbourhood: The cathedral lies just off the high street of Winchester. Its most immediate neighbours include the bishop's residence, several pubs, and a rather famous public school.
The cast: The Rt Rev. John Dennis, assistant bishop in the diocese of Winchester, preached the sermon. The Venerable John Guille, acting dean, welcomed the congregation.
The date & time: Sunday, 9 October 2005, 11.00am.

What was the name of the service?
Morning Prayer attended by Her Majesty's judges, magistrates and representatives of civic and legal bodies in Hampshire and the Channel Islands.

How full was the building?
Comfortably full in the nave, but with enough spare seats to put a bag down on.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
On arrival, and before I entered the building, someone asked, "Are you here for the service?" Since this is prime tourist territory, this question is not as strange as it might seem. Having satisfied my inquisitor, I was pointed down to some seats in the side aisle, where a sidesperson gave me an order of service. This all took place in hushed tones, for reasons which would become quickly apparent, as I realised I was walking into a service that had already begun.

Was your pew comfortable?
It was a metal fold-up chair, not especially comfortable but perfectly adequate for an hour. However, there was no space at all to kneel despite the directive to do so in the order of service. I've flown some budget airlines that would get a run for their money by the spacing of the cathedral's chairs.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Well, here's the root of the problem. I arrived ten minutes early for the sung eucharist at 11.15, having checked an hour beforehand on the noticeboard outside the cathedral. Whilst the noticeboard did advise to check for details of any special services, I had no reason to believe that what was listed under "Sunday Services" in large letters would be inaccurate. Walking in during the Old Testament lesson gave me no time to assess the pre-service atmosphere, and it took me a couple of minutes to work out what exactly I had walked into. But I imagine, given the congregation, the pre-service atmosphere was typically Anglican – hushed whispering with organ music over the top.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
Alas, I was too late for this, but given the regimented adherence to the order of service, the opening words must have been the lines of the first hymn: "O worship the King, all glorious above."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
An order of service printed especially for the occasion. I was impressed with the quality of paper, if dismayed about the recycling implications.

What musical instruments were played?
Organ and choir, both in excellent form.

Did anything distract you?
This was a service for the legal profession, and legal costume abounded: wigs, men in tights, hats, gowns, hoods, capes, as well as four large ceremonial maces. Many women who were clearly accompanying their husbands were dressed more akin for a wedding, with several particularly large hats on display. Being the sort of person who can easily laugh at ceremonial garb, I might have been distracted enough by all of this. However, there was plenty more to divert my attention, especially the stream of people who, presumably, were looking for the 11.15 service. And nothing can mitigate the fact that in a building as grand as Winchester Cathedral, built for quiet prayer and music, the spoken word tends to reverberate for several seconds. An inexperienced speaker not used to dealing with this (and even the occasional experienced speaker) seldom knows how to modulate and inflect their voice so they can be understood under these conditions.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
This was by-the-book Book of Common Prayer matins in a cathedral where choral music is at the heart of worship. However, it was made even more stiff-upper-lip by the particular demographics of this congregation.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
16 minutes, but it felt shorter.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – Bishop Dennis knew how to make his words understood amid the reverberation – clearly he is accustomed to speaking in the cathedral – and I was sitting close enough to the pulpit to hear him directly.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The bishop spent the first 10 minutes talking about the costume and fancy finery worn by the clerical and legal professions, describing how the individual can forget humility amid the frillery of clothes and pomp of office. He then urged the congregation to realise that the law they uphold is God's. He finished by praying "that none of us may become too big for our boots."

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The cathedral choir were on excellent form, and Orlando Gibbons' sung amen at the end of the service kept my mind in a heavenly direction, despite the fact that it was immediately followed by the national anthem.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
I hate arriving late for services, and I was having especially unheavenly thoughts about walking in on morning prayer with such grand attendees after so carefully checking out the time of the sung eucharist and rearranging my morning to attend it. Next time I will go into the cathedral and check the noticeboard inside before committing myself to a service.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I followed the directions as stated in the order of service: 'The congregation is asked to remain until the processions have left the cathedral and then to move at the direction of the sidesmen." So I was shepherded by various stewards toward the door outside, with no time to look lost.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
I assume the bigwigs had organised a reception for themselves, but for us mere mortals nothing was laid on. Still, local cheese from the farmers' market was probably better than anything the cathedral would have set out.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
6 – This service was hardly representative, but I would prefer to be a member of a church that didn't presume everyone knew about changes to usual service 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?
"God grant that we never become too big for our boots."
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