Mystery Worshipper: St Hilda
Church: Gloucester Cathedral
Location: Gloucester, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 16 January 2011, 3:00pm
An absolutely stunning example of an English cathedral. Gloucester is not overly built-up, so you get some lovely views as you drive around the town and immediate vicinity. The Cathedral Church of St Peter and the Holy and Indivisible Trinity was founded in the 11th century, and sitting in the nave I spent a lot of time gazing in awe at the massive Norman piers. There is also some good stained glass, though most of the best was not visible from my seat. The cathedral cloisters, a remnant of its former existence as St Peter's Abbey, are famous for their exquisite fan vaulting and their appearance in many Harry Potter films.
It operates as the headquarters of the diocese. Italso has an education centre, a café and a shop, and is a focusfor tourism in Gloucester.
The cathedral is near the main shopping area in Gloucester, but is separated from it by the cathedral close. The close is surrounded by many fine buildings, mostly from the 17th and 18th centuries, though some date back to the days of the Abbey. Gloucester is a delightful city, the county town of Gloucestershire. Now, however, it is somewhat overshadowed by its more worldly neighbour, Cheltenham. It still has many ancient, half-timbered buildings and retains many traces of its history as a market town and port.
It was an ecumenical service led by the church leaders of Gloucester, including the Rt Revd Michael Perham, Bishop of Gloucester; the Rt Revd John Went, Bishop of Tewkesbury; the Rt Revd Declan Lang, (Roman Catholic) Bishop of Clifton; Major Sam Edgar, divisional commander of the Salvation Army, West Midlands Region; the Revd Ward Jones, chairman of the Bristol Methodist District; plus other Free Church and Anglican clergy. The preacher was Dr Paula Gooder, a New Testament scholar, lecturer and author.
What was the name of the service?Ecumenical Celebration of the Christian Scriptures. The whole point of the service was to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible
How full was the building?
The seating in the cathedral is just in the main nave area, not the transepts, and this seating was almost completely full – there were several hundred worshippers (and a lot of clerical collars!).
Did anyone welcome you personally?
No, just a smile from the person who handed me my service booklet.
Was your pew comfortable?
The seating consisted of modern wooden chairs attached in rows. They were more comfortable than they looked.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
I arrived unusually early, as I realised the building was fast filling up. When I arrived, the choir were rehearsing in front of the screen, and there was a general buzz of conversation. When the choir departed (for a team talk, maybe), the organ filled the noise gap. On its website the cathedral is described as "a haven of peace and a place for reflection and prayer". I have to say I found it neither on this occasion.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Come to me and listen to my words: hear me and you shall have life."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The specially printed service booklet.
What musical instruments were played?
Did anything distract you?
As the service progressed, I became slightly concerned and distracted by the lack of discernible Christian symbols in the nave (where the whole of the service was held). The only cross I could spot was the processional cross. The most prominent object was the magnificent organ, over the screen, so that we seemed to be worshipping organ, rather than God. I think the cathedral staff should consider addressing this.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Typical Anglican cathedral fare: a selection of fairly modern hymns sung by the congregation and some anthems and psalms sung by the cathedral choir. These were interspersed by readings and prayers read by various representatives of church denominations.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 – Dr Gooder's appearance is rather striking, with her hair arranged in flowing locks. She has an engaging manner and illustrated her points with personal anecdotes, but there was an obvious wealth of learning at her disposal. Certainly worth travelling 20 miles to hear.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Dr Gooder addressed the question "Why read the Bible?" Her answer was that we read to discover more of God, more of ourselves, and more about the world in which we live. As we do so, it becomes clear that it is not so much us reading the Bible as the Bible reading us. We should find a place in our lives for regular Bible reading.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The cathedral building is just magnificent. I'm sure there'll be someNorman pillars and arches in heaven.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The choral singing. There was a particularly dour unaccompanied psalm, during which a large Bible was brought up to the lectern – this felt extremely alienating. While it may not have been exactly infernal, it didn't feel much like worship as I recognise it.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
It's very difficult to stand out as looking lost in a cathedral where many people were standing round looking a bit lost. However, I wandered slowly down to the back and stood next to what I can only describe as a water feature. No one spoke to me.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Alas, there were no after-service refreshments. Sadly by this time the cathedral café was closed, as were all the cafés in the surrounding streets.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
4 – I would have felt more enthusiastic about the cathedral wereit not for the choir.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
It made me feel grateful for my Christian heritage, as exemplified bythe King James Bible.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The beauty of the building. I shall return to enjoy the building onanother occasion.