Christ Church Cathedral, Nelson, New Zealand


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Christ Church Cathedral, Nelson
Location: New Zealand
Date of visit: Sunday, 18 February 2024, 10:00am

The building

The cathedral is a 20th century structure, built between 1925 and 65 on a 19th century foundation, in Modernist Gothic Revival style. A 35 metre open work bell tower rises above the cathedral and can be seen from all over the city. The cathedral stands on a hill named Piki Mai, which means, ‘come up hither’.

The church

The cathedral offers four services on a Sunday, with a children’s programme, CathedralKids, at the 10am choral communion, and a communion service on Wednesday mornings. There are several groups listed on the website, including a women’s group, walking group, exercise class, craft group, and meditation group. At the service we attended, both seniors and young families composed the congregation.

The neighborhood

Nelson is at the top of New Zealand’s South Island, and the Cathedral is at the top of Nelson. We walked easily down the flat main street, Trafalgar Street, until we reached a set of monumental stairs, and felt like we were approaching Jacob’s ladder. Eight flights of stairs stretched before us, and our hearts sank until we spied a little curved path. We began walking on it and were led in a circle around the cathedral but not to it. So we trudged across some lawns and found ourselves in the church parking lot. Puffing and panting, we found a pew and gave thanks that we were there.

The cast

The Dean preached. One assisting priest was the celebrant; another assisting priest was the intercessor. A laywoman served as minister of the liturgy and had various roles in the ante-communion. Three laypeople read the scripture lessons beautifully.

What was the name of the service?

Choral Communion.

How full was the building?

Moderately full.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

We walked in smiling and looking around at the beautiful space. No one welcomed us. No one greeted us after the service.

Was your pew comfortable?

As pews go, this was comfortable – it had a cushion!

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

The choir was rehearsing in the chancel and was not fully vested. Folks were taking what seemed to be their accustomed places. We were reading page one of our bulletin and were surprised to read this instruction at the top: ‘In the event of an earthquake, Drop, Cover, and Hold. If you are unable to get under a pew, adopt the emergency brace position and cover your head and neck with your arms. Do not go outside once shaking has started. Once shaking has stopped, follow the direction of the wardens.’

What were the exact opening words of the service?

‘Grace and peace to you from God’ – spoken first in Maori and then in English.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

We were given a printed service booklet.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ. The tempo of all music was certainly Lenten, perhaps even funereal!

Did anything distract you?

Several things. The last three clergy in the procession wore copes of different colors and styles – green, white, and blue. Halfway down the side aisle in this stunning space a door stood open to reveal a sink and a large metal tank suspended above it with much plumbing. We kept wondering what it was used for. A group of very cute little boys occupied the front pew and managed to wiggle and play without disturbing anyone.

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

Worship was well organized; all the (many) participants knew their roles well. They are very safety conscious, these Kiwis. Little plastic cups labeled ‘wine’ or ‘grape juice’ were used to administer the communion wine; a liturgical assistant followed behind the chalicist carrying a waste bin to collect the cups.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

Fifteen and a half minutes.

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

5 — Our preacher was open and friendly, articulated well, and connected with the congregation on a personal level. But he failed to connect his theological point with daily life, so there was no take-away.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The sermon was based on the Gospel account of Jesus asking his disciples, ‘Who do you say that I am?’ which ends with him telling Peter, ‘Get behind me Satan!’ It contrasted believing in Jesus with trusting in Jesus, and began with a lengthy story about a man walking on a tightrope across Niagara Falls. Much explanation of the Gospel setting followed, including a two-person demonstration of how Peter walked in front of Jesus, and was told to get behind him. The conclusion: deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Jesus.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

This Sunday was the beginning of a Sunday School year or semester, and a new teacher was beginning her ministry at the cathedral. Before the class began, the children and teacher came forward to receive a beautiful blessing.

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

The adverts for Easter. On the first Sunday of Lent, the bulletin had a full page ad describing the Easter services. The Dean encouraged us to read the descriptions and consider which we would attend. It seemed like Lent might get lost in this place.

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

The Dean invited folks to coffee hour during the announcements, but didn't tell us where it was. We followed some people into a side area with tables –but no coffee. No one spoke to us or looked at us. We asked a choir member how we could exit from the east side of the church so that we would be at the flights of stairs. She said that was impossible, and we would have to go out the front.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

We did not partake.

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

3 — We didn’t feel very welcome or fed.

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

It made us admire and thank all the faithful Christians who go to church to find God and honor God and love God, even if things are not perfect there.

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

Climbing up the hill to get inside!

Photo by Stug.stug under CC BY-SA 3.0 DEED

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