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  1069: Westminster Cathedral, Westminster, London

Westminster Cathedral, Westminster, London

Mystery Worshipper: Blithe Wompom.
The church: Westminster Cathedral, Westminster, London.
Denomination: Roman Catholic.
The building: Eastern Orthodox in inspiration, Westminster Cathedral is in what one might term the "stripey mode of Byzantine architecture", with alternating courses of brick (wide) and stone (narrow). I guess this style was rather forced upon them; they would have wanted to avoid direct comparisons with the Gothic of Westminster Abbey, or indeed the baroque of St Paul's Cathedral or Brompton Oratory. The interior of the cathedral is dark and forbidding. Despite plenty of light streaming in from windows high up in the structure, the smoke-blackened domes which form the roof ensure that a suitably devotional gloom is cast over the whole place. These domes were intended to be covered with rather splendid mosaics, which would, no doubt, have brightened the interior somewhat. The domes give the interior a very spacious accoustic. For people who like comparing echoes, I would say it's probably second only in London to St Paul's. There are lots of bits and bobs inside (as you would expect in a Catholic church): a set of stations by Eric Gill, a large baldacchin, lots of mosaics and marbles. The last three were mostly part of the original scheme, designed by the cathedral's architect, JF Bentley. One perhaps laudable but also rather tacky feature of the interior are the great chandeliers running down the nave, lit by hundreds of low wattage energy-saving bulbs, looking for all the world like little ranks of light sabres.
The church community: This is the head church of the Roman Catholic Church in England, and is home to England's cardinal. There are a lot of tacked-on buildings at the east end (liturgical rather than actual) which house a large number of the cathedral's clergy and staff.
The neighbourhood: The large mansion blocks in the surrounding area are also popular with Roman Catholic lay people (with a certain amount of spare cash). Just up the road is Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament, and various government ministries.
The cast: There were several priests involved in the service, but none of them was named specifically.

What was the name of the service?
Choral solemn vespers.

How full was the building?
A sparse smattering at the beginning grew to a reasonable number (about 100) by the end of the service.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
No, though I'm sure the staff at the welcome desk would have welcomed me if I had asked. They are rather used to tourists at the cathedral, and go to great lengths to greet them and encourage them to spend money. I think my carefully rehearsed genuflection rather put them off the scent.

Was your pew comfortable?
A well-shaped wooden chair, with nifty kneeler attachment.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Surprisingly relaxed and reflective, given the tourist situation and the fact that a high percentage of the congregation only turned up half way through the service.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
Deus in adiutorium meum intende ("Incline unto my aid, O God", the opening response).

What books did the congregation use during the service?
A purpose-printed booklet, Second Vespers and Benediction: Fifth Sunday of Easter, which consisted of three sheets of A4 stapled down the spine. Most people put their copy back on the table afterwards; I'm not sure why, as they can't really be re-used.

What musical instruments were played?
An impressively large organ, seemingly spread out around the building. The robed choir were on a large stage behind the high altar.

Did anything distract you?
The man in front of me putting his fingers in his ears when the organ got going. People shuffling in late. Sitting, kneeling, standing, constantly, although the congregation had very little to do.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Ritualistic, bordering on operatic. There was a lot of wandering around at the east end.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
There was no sermon.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The glorious, polyphonic setting of the magnificat (whose composer I forgot to make a note of).

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
My mobile phone going off. The "silent" setting, which I had never used before, proved to be a misnomer. It played the usual tune, only in a strident stage whisper.

If intercessory prayers were said, what issues were raised?
The intercessions were entirely by rote, printed in the service sheet, and were one of the few parts of the service in English. They were addressed to Our Lord directly, and were broadly on the theme of Easter. The priest who led them very neatly modified all references to "brothers" and "man" to more inclusive language; there was obviously a slight disagreement between him and whoever printed the service sheet! The 24th of April was the day of the papal coronation in Rome. I rather admire them, that on such an important day for the Roman Catholic Church, no mention was made of his nibs. Vespers is part of the perpetual cycle of prayer, inspired by the monastic tradition. The continuity of the prayers of the people continues in a timeless fashion, taking (it seems) little heed of things temporal... even papal coronations. I found this rather touching.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Westminster Cathedral is not like a normal parish church. There is no after-service coffee and chat (certainly not after vespers, at any rate), but I think that is to be expected. An organ recital was booked to take place right after the service, and this was then to be followed by a further evening mass, having already had four in the morning. I'm sure groups from the bigger services do their bit for Sunday fellowship, but they are expected to find a corner in one of the local drinking establishments.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
2 – Westminster Cathedral is a very good example of its type, but in the same way that I get bored at the opera, I would get very bored sitting through all that flouncing around every week. I listen to opera on CD, where the flouncing can't put me off, and I would gladly listen to this service again – on CD. Also, one has to bear in mind that while many Anglicans regard themselves as part of the greater Church, Rome doesn't see it that way.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, absolutely. This service might not have been somewhere I felt entirely comfortable, but it's always good to see things being done well, and it was obvious that those around me were deeply moved by it. The service reinforced a sense of permenance, tradition and unconcernedness with the ephemeral (even papal coronations!), which I have always felt and found in my branch of the Church of England. A poorly attended evensong on a wet Wednesday afternoon, or a said Prayer Book communion in a plain and anonymous country church, with whitewashed walls and clear windows. A service that is so insignificant within the world, the church and the lives of its members, and yet one which has continued, and will yet continue, for generations.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
That setting of the magnificat.
 
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