Cathedral of St Stephen, Brisbane, Australia

Cathedral of St Stephen, Brisbane, Australia


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Mystery Worshipper: Ultracrepidarian
Church: Cathedral of St Stephen
Location: Brisbane, Australia
Date of visit: Wednesday, 6 February 2008, 10:00am

The building

St Stephen's is a stone Gothic Revival cathedral which was built in several stages throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. The interior is marked by its stark and angular design, particularly visible in the altar, cathedra and ambo, which contrasts with the ornate exterior of the building.

The church

There appears to be a healthy worshipping community at the Cathedral – the Ash Wednesday mass was well attended, as was another weekday mass I went to last year. St Stephen's is located in the centre of Brisbane, and the weekday congregation consists largely of people working in the city. According to the weekly newsletter, they are also arranging an outreach to engage Catholics living in inner-city apartments. The church is very much involved in social justice activities. It also plays host to a variety of musical performances throughout the year.

The neighborhood

St Stephen's is right in the middle of the city, across the road from the GPO. The church owns a large area of land (by inner-city standards) and the cathedral is surrounded by church buildings including a chapel, a bookshop and various administration buildings. The central positioning of the cathedral means that it is able to attract a large and varied congregation, even on weekdays.

The cast

The Very Revd Kenneth Howell, dean, celebrated and preached.

What was the name of the service?

Mass with the Imposition of Ashes

How full was the building?

Mostly full to start with and new people kept arriving throughout the service.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

No. I collected an order of service from the table near the door and found myself a seat.

Was your pew comfortable?

St Stephen's doesn't have pews, but instead there are interlocked wooden chairs arranged in rows of about a dozen. The seats are quite hard, but the service wasn't long enough for them to become uncomfortable.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Quiet and reverential. The organist started playing softly ten minutes before the service began. There was a constant stream of people into the cathedral in the minutes leading up to the service, but they quietly found seats without disturbing those already inside.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Good morning. Your hymn books can be found on the ledge in the seat in front of you."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

A hymn book, Gather Australia. The Bible readings were printed on the order of service.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ. The organ is very recent, having been completed in 2000 as part of the Jubilee celebrations. It's a very impressive instrument and it was used to good effect during the service. There was also a cantor who led the hymns and sang the verses of the psalm.

Did anything distract you?

Despite the fact that they were trying to be unobtrusive, I found the continual movement of people in and out of the cathedral a bit distracting. Also, various noises filtered in from the city outside, including some loud laughing after the sermon. Lastly, I found it difficult to work out what we were singing at times – everybody except me seemed to know the psalm response and I eventually worked it out, but I couldn't find it written down anywhere.

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

The worship was controlled and dignified, but not overly dressed-up. There was a small procession and the celebrant and one assistant were vested, but it wasn't a smells-and-bells service. "Relaxed" is the word I'd use. After going through the notices at the end of the service, the celebrant wished us all a happy Lent, which amused me. It was all over in under an hour.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

4 minutes.

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

8 – Dean Howell spoke clearly and with an engaging and relaxed style. It was obvious that he preaches at the cathedral regularly. His points were well chosen, well articulated, and tied into the Bible readings – I'm impressed that he managed to do it all in under five minutes.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

He began with the analogy of tuning a radio. Sometimes things happen which bump the tuning knob without us noticing and so we don't hear the music as clearly as we could if we took the time to readjust the tuning. In the same way, Lent is a time for us to step back and tune back in to God.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

In addition to the excellent sermon, I particularly enjoyed the singing by the cantor. She had a beautiful voice and it was amplified perfectly to fill the cathedral.

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

There was some minor chaos in lining up for the imposition of ashes. The lines started forming at the front of the cathedral as I would have expected, but then people from the back of the cathedral started moving forward. As one in the middle, I started to worry that I might miss out. In the end, it all got sorted, but I don't know why the imposition of ashes was so much more disorganised than the communion. Also, I found it very difficult to work out the psalm and some of the spoken responses. The differences between Catholic usage and what I'm more accustomed to as a Protestant made me feel somewhat ignorant. It would have been helpful to have the responses included in the service handout.

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

The cathedral emptied almost immediately as everyone headed back off to work. Since nobody else was hanging around outside, I headed down to the bookshop and did some browsing.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?


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

7 – Even though I'm not Catholic, the quality of the preaching and the reverent-but-not-uptight nature of the worship will draw me back to more weekday services. Sadly, the organist and cantor are only there on feast days.

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

Yes. It was great to pause, retune and think about reconnecting with God in Lent.

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

"Have a happy Lent." Although I found the comment funny, it tied in nicely with the sermon where we were reminded that Lent is a time for rediscovering God through fasting and charity and that the rediscovery is something in which to rejoice.

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