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1804: Portsmouth Cathedral, Portsmouth, England
Portsmouth Cathedral, Portsmouth, England
Photo: Christophe Finot
Mystery Worshipper: Fluffy Bunny.
The church: Cathedral Church of St Thomas of Canterbury, Portsmouth, England.
Denomination: Church of England, Diocese of Portsmouth.
The building: A glorious Georgian looking building in light stone, currently undergoing repairs. It was established as a chapel in the early 12th century and became a parish church in the 14th century. Only the chancel and transepts of the original building remain. Between 1683 and 1693 the old tower and nave were taken down and replaced by a new nave, aisles, and west tower. Further renovations occurred between 1902 and 1904. An enlargement scheme was begun after the diocese of Portsmouth was created in 1927, but World War II interrupted that work. Renovation was not resumed until 1990, when a temporary wall that had marked the western extent of the nave became unstable. The completed building was consecrated in 1991 in the presence of Her Majesty the Queen Mother. The interior is quite unusual, with the building bisected by a large stone wall with arches underneath and the organ on top.
The church: As a parish church, the cathedral sponsors several activities, including a mothers and toddlers group, Sunday school, youth club, choir, and bell ringers. They also hold a lunchtime concert series as well as organ recitals throughout the year. Three eucharists plus choral evensong are offered each Sunday, along with Taizé sung prayer on the last Sunday evening of each month. On weekdays, a single communion service plus either choral evensong or said evening prayer are offered.
The neighbourhood: Portsmouth is in Hampshire, on England's south coast, and has been a significant naval port for centuries. The city was bombed heavily during World War II, and the occasional unexploded bomb is still unearthed from time to time. The city was extensively rebuilt after war's end, and today's Portsmouth is marked by continuing revitalisation and regeneration. The cathedral is situated in Old Portsmouth near the historic dockyard and Spice Island, a district once crammed with pubs and other establishments of the kind popular with sailors. The cathedral shows its maritime links with a ship being part of its coat of arms.
The cast: The Revd Canon Michael Tristram, canon pastor, preached the sermon. Presiding at the eucharist was a lady priest who was not named on any of the service sheets, but a lovely lady nonetheless.
The date & time: 12th Sunday after Trinity, 30 August 2009, 10.30am.

What was the name of the service?
Joint Eucharist with Wessex Chamber Choir.

How full was the building?
The half of the building used was almost full.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
The sidesperson was in conversation with someone and didn't seem to notice the backlog of people coming in. When she realised there was a bit of a queue, she managed to stir up a flurry of sheets and booklets, but none of us in my party seemed to get the full complement. However, this was overshadowed by the very helpful lady who asked if we were visitors, worked out how many we were, and found us seats all together. Then a very jolly lady presented us with copies of The Pompey Chimes, "something to read in case you get bored with the sermon." A couple in the adjacent pew moved over to accommodate us all. What a friendly bunch!

Was your pew comfortable?
They looked like quite old-fashioned boxed-in pews but were not overly uncomfortable.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
There was a lot of chatter and the organ played.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"A warm welcome to you all."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
Leaflet containing the collect, readings and liturgy, along with a booklet entitled Cathedral Eucharist in Ordinary Time and the New English Hymnal. There were also a newsletter and a pew sheet. The Common Bible and the Shorter Prayer Book were also in the pews, but they were not used.

What musical instruments were played?
Organ. The Wessex Chamber Choir were guests.

Did anything distract you?
The front of our pew was extremely rocky and shook whenever anyone took hold of it. I had visions of it crashing to the floor in front of us during the service and depositing all our books and sheets onto the floor. The unusual layout of the church had me looking around – the congregation sat on either side of the church looking toward the centre aisle, with the choir seated in front of us and the high altar at the front which was to the side of the congregation. However, it worked!

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
No incense, no bells during the eucharist or at any other time. The clergy were in matching vestments, the presiding priest in a very interesting turquoise shaded chasuble, the other two priests in stoles of the same material. Everything matched the altar frontal. There were four young servers as well as the sidespeople.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
9 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 – The canon pastor preached from a very imposing position high above us, but he had a fluent clear speaking voice that was very engaging.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Taking the gospel as the basis (Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23), he posed the question: Is the practice of our faith liberating or constraining? The pharisees felt that strict observance of the laws of Moses meant that they were good, but they had forgotten what it was really about. The observance had become an end in itself rather than the means. They were inward looking and sticklers for the rules, but failed to recognise Jesus and free themselves. They were blind to the reality of God in their midst. The Church must also be mindful that our practice of our religion must make God accessible, not fence him in. Are we blind to the need for repentance and faith? Rules and regulations can be deceptivel, and we can become like the pharisees. We should value diversity and not be threatened by it; liberated, not ensnared. The Church should recharge our spiritual batteries. We should be a channel of God's peace and forgiveness and see God in everyone. This can be very hard in reality. We get it wrong and are called to repentance. Is the practice of our faith liberating? Apply the law of love. Does the Church encourage this?

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The superb singing of the Wessex Chamber Choir. They were excellent. Their conductor was very clear and the choir members actually watched his conducting. The sanctus and benedictus moved me to tears.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The rocking pew frontal. Also, the choir sang an introit and motet during the communion but went to the other side of the large stone wall containing the organ to do this. It completely muffled the words, so all we could hear was the lovely sound of music, but not the words that accompanied it!

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
We were all invited to have lemonade after the service. Canon Tristram had quite a natter with us once he had ascertained we were visitors.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There were no hot beverages, but the lemonade was homemade and very delicious. There was also chilled water available. When hot drinks are served, the Cathedral says it uses fair trade products.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – Unlike other cathedral services I have attended, I felt involved with the service rather than just a spectator because of the unusual layout.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Very much so. My spiritual batteries were well and truly recharged.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The beautiful singing and the thoughtful sermon.
 
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