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2008: St Patrick's Cathedral, Armagh, Northern Ireland
St Patrick's Cathedral, Armagh, Northern Ireland
Mystery Worshipper: Servetus.
The church: St Patrick's Cathedral, Armagh, Northern Ireland.
Denomination: Church of Ireland, Diocese of Armagh.
The building: It would require a short essay to describe the building adequately. It is incredibly beautiful inside and out and is jam-packed with all kinds of memorials and interesting features. It traces its origins back to the 5th century and has been destroyed and rebuilt 17 times! Its present state is largely due to the efforts of Lewis Nockalls Cottingham, a specialist in medieval Gothic architecture who championed the restoration and conservation of existing buildings. It follows the typical Anglican layout. There is a separate chapel behind the main altar. The north and south transepts have been designated as regimental chapel and chapter room respectively. There is also an impressive marble font at the west entrance to greet any visitors. In the nave there is a replica of the Book of Kells (the original is housed in Trinity College, Dublin, I believe). Facing the congregation from behind the main altar is a striking picture depicting the Last Supper. Also the belfry houses eight bells. When I stepped inside, the first thing I discerned was what I can only describe as a "museum smell."
The church: They host the Centre for Celtic Spirituality, an inter-church project, and maintain close relations with the Roman Catholic cathedral, also called St Patrick's. They celebrate said holy communion and sung eucharist each Sunday, as well as choral evensong. Said matins and holy communion are offered each Weekday, with Celtic eucharist the first Wednesday of each month.
The neighbourhood: Armagh, granted city status in 1994 by Her Majesty the Queen, is the smallest city not only in Northern Ireland but on the entire Irish island! As the seat of both the Anglican and Roman Catholic archbishops, it is considered Ireland’s spiritual capital and predates Canterbury as a Christian religious site. I once heard Armagh described as a city on seven hills (like Rome, I guess), and the cathedral is perched right on top of one of them and overlooks most of the city. From this vantage point Armagh appeared to me a fairly sleepy town but perhaps this is because it was a holiday weekend and still fairly early in the morning. Armagh's own website describes the city as "a vibrant city, with hospitable people and great attractions."
The cast: The service was led by the Revd Grace Clunie, director of Celtic Spirituality and cathedral priest. Mrs Clunie was assisted by the verger, David Bingham, and Theo Saunders at the organ. The Revd Campbell Dixon, curate assistant at St Patrick's, Jordanstown, preached.
The date & time: 11 July 2010, 11.00am.

What was the name of the service?
Morning Prayer.

How full was the building?
Attendance was decidedly patchy. There were around 30 souls in this fairly cavernous building. Strangely, though, it didn't feel as empty as it must have looked.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
We were warmly welcomed and handed a service sheet. No sooner had we sat down than Mrs Clunie came by to say hello and make sure we felt welcome, which we did. She apologised that normally they would have a robed choir but, because of the holidays, we would be singing unaccompanied today.

Was your pew comfortable?
There are claret-coloured cushions lining the solid wooden pews; they felt very tightly packed with stuffing. They were surprisingly comfortable. I enjoyed the extra-large kneeling cushions, which I used as a footrest.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
There was a reverent hush from the moment we entered, punctuated by the odd whisper here and there and an occasional scuttling of feet down the aisle. There was also a faint electrical buzz emanating from somewhere or other. Just before the service started, the organ kicked in. I felt a little overawed by the surroundings but was quickly convinced I was in a holy place.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
The verger headed the procession consisting of officiant and guest preacher. All reverenced the altar and took their places in silence as we stood and sang the first hymn. The first words didn't come until after this. They were: "The Lord be with you" to which we all replied: "And also with you."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
None, just the service sheets.

What musical instruments were played?
Only the organ, which was played exceptionally well, I must add.

Did anything distract you?
Actually, there are so many interesting things inside this church that it would be so easy to spend the entire time just looking around. But I noticed something that looked uncannily like a security camera dangling from an organ pipe; it seemed totally out of place (although I understand why they might want it there). Once I had seen it, I found it difficult not to keep checking on it! Mrs Clunie spoke with a slight case of preacher's voice syndrome, also known as the stained glass voice or Billy Graham speak. It started out as a distraction, but once I got accustomed to it I actually found it quite pleasing.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Traditional morning prayer. After an opening hymn, there was a confession and absolution. Then we stood and chanted versicles and responses and recited Psalm 82. In between readings we recited Urbs fortitudinis (Isaiah 26) and after the second reading a Benedictus and the Apostle's Creed. Then there were collects and prayers followed by two more hymns and the address. There was little ceremony during the service and no incense, although there were some candles burning which added some aura. The music selection was impeccably well-suited to the theme. Unfortunately, though, due to the small number of faithful gathered for worship, we struggled to raise the roof, so to speak. However, for what it was, I enjoyed it a lot.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
18 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – Mr Dixon could do with more variation in pitch and tone in his voice.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Mr Dixon's text was Luke 10:25-37, the parable of the good Samaritan. Mankind has always struggled against bigotry and prejudice. The pious of Jesus' day blamed "sinners" for making God angry. But God, in Jesus, loves everyone. God looks at not only what we do, but how we act toward others, especially those in need.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
One of the hymns was "Won't you let me be your servant." I had never encountered it before, and I found the sentiments simple yet profound. Another moment that left a deep impression was the preacher's mention of an anecdote about the controversial evangelical pastor Tony Campolo – how he threw a birthday party for a prostitute whom he overheard say that she had never had a birthday party in her life. I thought it aptly summed up the theme of the sermon and provided a glimpse of what the kingdom of God is surely all about. Also, after the service was over, the organist produced a wonderful flourish that was immensely uplifting.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
This will seem like a strange criticism, but it is more reflective of my mood on the day of my visit than anything else. I do enjoy a modicum of liturgy, and this particular service had just enough to please me. My gripe is that while there was so much material being recited and so many great themes to reflect on, for me it all went by too quickly. It felt somewhat rushed, and I wish it could have proceeded more slowly. Perhaps if each item had been interspersed with some moments of silence, it would have allowed more time for personal reflection.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Everyone headed for the door, so we followed suit. On the way out we exchanged some pleasantries and were informed that it was very nice to have us along.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
None.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 – I would definitely come to a service like this regularly but not every week; once a month would be adequate.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. I totally connected with the music, the theme, and the sermon. And the atmosphere was good, numinous even.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
That inspiring story about the prostitute and the birthday party.
 
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