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Cathedral, Durham, England
Photo by Jungpionier
Church of Christ, Blessed Mary the Virgin and St Cuthbert,
Church of England, Diocese
A Norman architectural treasure. Construction began in 1093
and the nave was completed by 1133, which makes it Romanesque,
characterised by round arches (including many blind arcades)
and massive pillars carved with deep chevrons and other designs. They are allegedly six metres high and six metres around, but they look deceptively tall and slim in situ. The cathedral remains remarkably
intact and is the earliest surviving example of
ribbed vaulting. Pews were only installed in Victorian times.
Amazing as that is, its impact is magnified by its astonishing
setting. The cathedral is built on a peninsula surrounded on
three sides by the River Wear. The west end overlooks a gorge,
and to the north (landward) stands Durham Castle, so it is well
protected on four sides. The twin towers flanking the rose window
at the east end, and the taller central tower (with bells that
chime the quarters and the hours but no external clock face)
make it an icon of northeast England. It was one of the first
designated English Heritage sites. The cathedral was built to
contain and honour the tomb and shrine of St Cuthbert (of Holy
Island fame), which it does to this day. It also houses,
at the opposite (west) end of the building, the tomb and shrine
of the Venerable Bede, to whom we owe not only most of our knowledge
of the history of the church and of England, but the historian's
craft. (Bede invented footnotes.) Durham Cathedral was voted
Britain's favourite building in a BBC poll in 2001, with 51
percent of the vote (so more than half the voters chose it over
all the other contenders put together).
Being a cathedral church in a university town, a shrine to two
enormous saints, and a designated English Heritage site, there
are a number of potential "communities" and all of them are
well served. There is music and worship and tourism and archeology,
and stuff going on all the time. There are about 1,300 scheduled
services a year, plus concerts, tours, exhibitions, and hundreds
of thousands of visitors.
The cathedral and the castle dominate the peninsula which forms
the centre of the city of Durham. There is an entertaining legend
around the selection of the protected site, concerning a milkmaid
who lost her cow and a monk's dream. Dun Cow Lane still runs
adjacent to the cathedral. The university owns many of the residential
buildings on the peninsula, and there is also a vibrant market
square. So the immediate neighbours would be students, tourists
and merchants. This marriage of history and geography, religion,
academia and tourism is seldom seen. Even Oxford and Cambridge
lack such spectacular settings.
The Very Revd Michael Sadgrove, dean, was the celebrant. He
was assisted by the Revd David Sudron as deacon. The preacher
was the Revd Canon David Kennedy.
The date & time:
Ninth Sunday after Trinity, 20 July 2008, 11.15am.
What was the name of the service?
Sung Eucharist (with Sunday School).
How full was the building?
The nave was about half full, which translates to about 200
bottoms warming pews, but there were another 50 or more members
of the congregation in the quire. However, there was to be a
special service in the afternoon for the annual dismissal of
the choristers, and it is possible the morning services (the
earlier matins and this eucharist) were depleted in favour of
Did anyone welcome you personally?
A friendly man in a red gown handed me the service book and
pew leaflet as I entered, and said there were still seats in
the quire. When I got to the top of the nave, however, there
weren't, and a rather flustered steward was worried about how
to communicate this fact to the back. So I did that for her
and took a seat in the nave beside a pleasant but not inquisitive
woman who I assume was a local, as she greeted people by name
when we shared the peace. I didn't feel too self-conscious to
be scribbling all over my pew leaflet during the service.
Was your pew comfortable?
Yes, well, I was lucky. The first half-dozen pews have nice
thick red padded cushions running the length of them. Further
back, I suppose the peasants suffered.
How would you describe the pre-service
Reverential. Quiet. There was an appeal printed in the pew leaflet
asking people to respect the needs of those who wish to prepare
quietly for services, and pointing out that the organ voluntaries
before and after are an integral part of the service.
What were the exact opening words of the
"In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy
What books did the congregation use during the
Printed order of service (Common Worship Order One)
together with the printed pew leaflet for the day and the New
English Hymnal. Also in the pews were copies of the Book
of Common Prayer, but these were not used at this service.
(They would be used at evensong.)
What musical instruments were played?
Organ, a grand and beautiful instrument that I wish I could
describe more knowledgeably, played brilliantly by James Lancelot,
master of the choristers and organist. Please don't ask me whether
he is related to the famous Sir Lancelot of Arthurian fame.
I like to think so.
Did anything distract you?
There was one small child constantly screaming for attention.
Its mother did her best to distract it, but it was a losing
battle. She can't have got anything out of the service herself.
It was extremely unfortunate.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or
Exactly, precisely, perfectly middle-of-the-road Anglican cathedral.
Not too high, not too low, a glorious sung eucharist (Palestrina's
Missa Brevis) with all necessary accoutrements but
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 There was nothing wrong with it. It was clinically
perfect. It just wasn't inspirational or profound for me. But
it wasn't addressed to me. This was the day of the dismissal
of the choir for the summer, which meant goodbye to some boys
who had been playing a central part in the worship of the cathedral
for five years. This only mattered to the people to whom it
mattered, but to them it was obviously life-changing.
In a nutshell, what was
the sermon about?
Canon Kennedy began by highlighting some of the events of the
final year of the choir, which included a performance of the
Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor
Dreamcoat, which led into the Joseph story in Genesis.
The thesis was that while in the modern, reality-TV version
of Joseph, "any dream will do," in the Bible God is the source
of dreams, and not any dream will do. Acknowledging that this
play has done much to keep the Bible's story of Joseph alive
in a time of biblical illiteracy, Canon Kennedy said that the
Joseph story simply points us forward. Joseph was sent by God.
He was betrayed and abandoned. But ultimately through him many
were saved. It is not about a promised land, but the whole world.
At this point he neatly brought it back to the choirboys, as
they leave this place to "chase their dreams".
Which part of the service
was like being in heaven?
The music was fantastic, both the choir and the organ. The aura
of holiness was amazing, as Durham is a warm and personal cathedral.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Only that one screaming toddler. It reminded me of an advertising slogan of a famous ethical cosmetics company, which said: "If you think you are too small to make a difference, you've never been to bed with a mosquito."
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
They opened the floodgates to the tourists who had been patiently
waiting for the service to end. The clergy made themselves available
for a handshake as we left. I actually got to shake hands with
How would you describe the after-service
If one wanted coffee, it was available in the restaurant. You can have a full Sunday roast lunch, but it's not free, and it's not about fellowship.
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
10 What's not to like? It is such a beautiful, holy place.
I would have given it a 12, but the drop-down menu stopped me
Did the service make you feel glad to be a
Yes, it gave me hope. Durham itself also gave me an enormous
history lesson which helped me to realise that every 500 years
or so there is a major shake-up in the church. We shouldn't
be surprised to be in the middle of one now, and neither should
we be worried. The church is bigger than our petty issues of
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The spectacular, unique, holy building. This church cannot be
separated from its history and its geography. It has both in
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