Bristol Cathedral

Bristol Cathedral, Bristol, England


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Bristol Cathedral
Location: Bristol, England
Date of visit: Thursday, 21 April 2011, 10:30am

The building

The site has probably had a church for over a thousand years. In 1148 the building became the Abbey of St Augustine. The nave, choir and aisles are all the same height, making it the major example in Great Britain of a hall church. When the abbey was dissolved in 1539, the nave was destroyed. The church became a cathedral in 1542. In 1868, the nave was rebuilt to its medieval design under the direction of GE Street, the architect responsible for the Royal Courts of Justice in London. JL Pearson, designer of Truro Cathedral, added two towers at the west end and further reordered the interior.

The church

Like other cathedrals, the congregation of the Cathedral Church of the Holy and Undivided Trinity has grown considerably in the past few years. I think people are attracted to good music and intelligent preaching. Members of the congregation, as well as the previous dean, have commented that they prefer the relative anonymity of a big congregation and the comparative lack of endless committees and enforced chumminess of their parish churches.

The neighborhood

Outside is College Green, a grassy area good for sunbathing. Somewhere beneath the grass lie the relics of St Jordan, who accompanied St Augustine on his travels but dropped off in Bristol and stayed here (many of us do – it's a lovely city but is known as "the graveyard of ambition" because people don't move on). Jordan may not be a very well-known saint but he is often commemorated in the eucharistic prayer and there is an icon of him in the north quire aisle. The area in front of the cathedral is loved by skateboarders but the previous dean seemed to be on a personal mission to get rid of them. He failed – and the current diocesan directory depicts a successful skateboarders' event at another big church in the diocese! A hospital pulled down during the dissolution of the monasteries is now the Lord Mayor's chapel, the only church in Britain owned and controlled by a local government authority, whose council house is also in the area.

The cast

The Rt Revd Michael Hill, Bishop of Bristol; the Very Revd Dr David Hoyle, Dean of Bristol. A girls' choir, the Girls of the Cathedral Consort.

What was the name of the service?

Diocesan Chrism Eucharist with the Renewal of Commitment to Ministry and the Collation and Installation of the Revd Canon Christine Froude as Archdeacon of Malmesbury.

How full was the building?

Packed, with about 650 people, 230 of whom were robed clergy and lay ministers.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Yes, a steward at the door handing out service booklets. Also one of the vergers, whose politics I dislike but who is a lovely man and a sound Christian.

Was your pew comfortable?

Yes, though I was a bit hemmed in by the people on my left and right. I am used to having a pew all by myself for less well-attended services!

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Expectant. People from opposite ends of the diocese exchanged greetings and gossip.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Good morning and welcome to your cathedral." The new-ish dean introduced himself and reminded us (in Latin!) to silence mobile phones. He also told us that the laying on of hands and anointing was available in the Elder Lady Chapel, just off the north transept. He added: "For those of you who don't know your apse from your ambo, that's over there [pointing]."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

A specially printed order of service with all the hymns and readings included. Although it's bad for trees, I do like this arrangement because my mind wanders all over the place if I don't follow the readings in print, and I am not the sort of Christian who carries a Bible to church.

What musical instruments were played?


Did anything distract you?

The person sitting on my left had a squeaky chair so we got the giggles. I was mentally listing all the people I wanted to talk to afterwards and also wondering why the three deacons who carry the oils wear different coloured dalmatics – purple for the oil of unction, green for baptism, and white for chrism. Nobody, even on the Ecclesiantics board, has ever come up with an explanation beyond "It's C of E; it's what we do."

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

Joyful and affirmative. The chrism eucharist is the annual occasion when oils are blessed. The clergy renew their ordination vows and take the oils back to their parishes. Because this is usually the only time such a wide representation comes together, it felt like a diocesan family annual event. I dislike the term "family service" but this is what it was.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

20 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

10 – Even though Bishop Mike is my bishop, I'd have no hesitation in giving him a lower score if necessary. But in fact he is a very engaging speaker who uses carefully chosen quotations, stories and anecdotes to keep your interest without distracting you from the serious bits. The sermon was scripted and is on his blog, but he hardly ever referred to the script and maintained eye contact throughout. The bishop was slightly tearful when he spoke about his daughter's risk-taking when she did a bungee-jump in New Zealand. He said it was done in pitch darkness but someone filmed it – miracle camera?

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Collaborative ministry, based on 1 Corinthians 3:1-7, where Paul challenges the superficiality of the worship at Corinth, its conformity to worldly standards, and its individualism. Today's Christians need to be less worried about finances and the wranglings within the Anglican Communion. We need to be imaginative and to take risks.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The voices of the girls' choir soaring up the Gothic arches. The service lasted two hours and I usually get bored after an hour but I felt emotionally high throughout. I rejoiced that about half the robed clergy were women (after all, Bristol Cathedral was the place where the first ordinations of women to the priesthood happened). Roll on women bishops! I liked it when the bishop breathed deeply into the oil of chrism. You feel that you are about very serious business here.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

Also the music – I love Britten's Missa Brevis and Ireland's "It is a thing most wonderful" but I'm fairly sure that they have sung those every chrism mass (with last year being the exception) since I started going to it about 13 years ago. I also felt a tad sorry for the people of St Mary's Shirehampton, whose vicar had been taken from them to be the new archdeacon. Canon Froude was very popular and had built up the church. She took risks and courted the media.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

No chance. An evangelical priest asked me how we high church types do the triduum. He was genuinely interested and a far cry from the sort of evangelicals I knew as a teenager who would decry "idolatry" (after all, we do kiss a cross and genuflect to a giant candle). I was then accosted by someone who had been in the same year as I was at university. Then I met a former colleague from the school where we used to teach, as well as one of our past curates and someone who regularly posts on the Ship. Finally, I spotted a priest who looked like he was nicking the vestments (a white high mass set), but he told me they belonged to his church and he lends them to the cathedral every year. I couldn't get away! Finally, when I left to catch my bus, it was just my luck that the bus broke down!

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

We had wine, sausage rolls, and panini. Sadly I had to have fruit juice because I am taking antibiotics.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

10 – Bristol Cathedral was fairly shambolic when I came here 30 years ago. Services tended to start late and the choir often had badly-creased surplices hanging off their shoulders. Thanks to the present and the previous precentor, services have style and grandeur with a prayerful, liberal catholic feel.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

Very much so, unusually since I have been a Christian for about 50 years and have become somewhat jaded and cynical.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

The sermon. Actually, I can still remember the sermon he preached three years ago!

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