Lichfield Cathedral, Staffordshire, England

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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Lichfield Cathedral
Location: Staffordshire, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 31 January 2021, 10:30am

The building

The Cathedral Church of St Chad and St Mary is probably best known for being the only medieval three-spired cathedral in the UK, with one located above the crossing and the other two flanking the west front. The west front is very highly decorated with statuary, though as you venture round the sides it becomes markedly less fussy. Inside gives the impression of light and space, with the view to the high altar from the west end being little impeded by the choir screen, which is wrought iron rather than a solid screen. The cathedral suffered extensive damage in the English Civil War, and though restoration was started in the 1660s, it wasn’t fully finished until the Victorians came along to complete the job. Helpfully, since the cathedral has a handy-dandy 3D virtual tour on their website, you can take a tour round the internal space and get a good look in your own time at things you might miss were the building full of other people!

The church

Whilst it’s impossible to judge the church community when the service is live-streamed and you’re located in a different country (technically), one of the reasons I wanted to visit Lichfield was that it the first of the Church of England cathedrals that have made themselves available to the National Health Service to be used as COVID vaccination centres. The dean was on the BBC news drawing the parallel between people having visited the shrine of St Chad (which is in the cathedral) in search of healing in times past, and how people are coming back to the cathedral in search of healing (so to speak) today. That resonated with me, and it seems so right that cathedrals and churches should be serving people in this way today.

The neighborhood

Lichfield is in Staffordshire, in the West Midlands. It’s about 16 miles north of Birmingham and was the birthplace of Samuel Johnson, he of the first Dictionary of the English Language fame. It had historically been an important staging post for coaching traffic, but the arrival of the railways put paid to that, and Google street view seems to indicate that Lichfield centre has retained a good number of its historic buildings.

The cast

The canon precentor presided at the eucharist, the dean read the gospel and preached, and there were also the organist, a verger, and a lay person who read the Old Testament lesson.

What was the name of the service?

Eucharist (Presentation of Christ in the Temple/Candlemas).

How full was the building?

Lichfield is not open for public worship – the service was live-streamed, so other than the aforementioned cast, there was presumably a camera person and someone in a dark sweater whose role is a mystery (maybe a sound technician?) who can be seen on the south side of the choir screen at the beginning of the video. And that was probably it in terms of people physically present in the building. There were however at peak some 246 people watching online.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

In person, no, this being a live-streamed service. However, after the opening sentences we were all welcomed to Lichfield Cathedral.

Was your pew comfortable?

My sofa has been doing sterling work standing in for my more usual pew/choir stall.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

I logged on early and was expecting some kind of a countdown clock until the service went live. That didn’t seem to happen, and I suddenly glanced at the clock and realised the service had probably started! When I toggled the window on my laptop, I caught the end of an introductory piece of organ music.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

‘In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.’

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Depends who you define as being the congregation! Those physically present in the cathedral appeared to have printed orders of service. For those of us watching online, a ribbon kept appearing at the bottom of the screen with plain text and bold text to identify those words we should speak.

What musical instruments were played?

The organ. And a recording of the choir was played at the laying of the altar. The precentor noted that the choir had all recorded themselves in their own homes, and that the director of music had digitally combined it.

Did anything distract you?

When the dean was preaching, his hands were in view on the lectern the whole time. And they were scarcely ever still. I feel somewhat ashamed to mention this, but it was one of those things that once I’d noticed it, I couldn’t stop noticing it.

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

I’m not sure the usual descriptors apply to an online service with minimal participants present. That said, it was put together and presented with the fact in mind that the congregation weren’t physically present. It was a full said communion service, with nothing omitted, and was done with dignity and care. We were invited to light a candle, as they did in the church. The responsorial parts of the liturgy were available for us. We were invited to make an act of spiritual communion.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

14 minutes.

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

7 — As mentioned above, the dean's hands were seldom still. I know we've all been washing our hands a lot, but ...

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Candlemas is a hinge Sunday, taking the light and joy of Christ received at the Nativity into the darkness of the rest of the year as we move forward toward Holy Week and the Passion. Simeon was a righteous soul, keeping the hope of the Messiah alive in his heart, even in dark times. And he saw that prophecy fulfilled in the child. The Old Testament reading was from Malachi (meaning my messenger), and in the child Jesus the messenger and the message were one: that there will be redemption, but it is like a refiner and not gentle. Likewise Simeon sees the light of the promise to be fulfilled, but it will not come without cost. Jesus was controversial – people questioned what he was about in order to avoid his message. And this questions our arrogance and self satisfaction. We live in a uniquely testing time – why is it that so many in Europe have turned from our Christian heritage and are no longer practising? Is it our timidity? That we say safe things? Secularists would say we are there as a crutch for the weak – useful but harmless. But surely the blazing light is that we are called to share, to enliven, to stand up for truth and to show the fruits of the Spirit. There were those who applauded Lichfield’s decision to become a vaccination centre, with hundreds and thousands of folk coming through their door – but some were snarky and felt they should stick to God alone, to be useful but harmless. Which is it to be?

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

I did enjoy the choir anthem (‘When to the Temple’ – Eccard), which was accompanied initially by a view of an altar – it’s one my own choir sing, and I was able to sing along in my head. It then zoomed in and you were able to see that part of the altarpiece was a carved relief of the Presentation. (The 3D viewer revealed it to be the Lady chapel altar.)

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

A random booming noise coming from a nearby flat. I suspect the flat immediately above me … they already have form!

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

Lots of us hung around to hear the organ voluntary (‘Kirchliche Fest-Ouvertüre’, Op. 31, Otto Nicolai, arranged by Franz Liszt, since you asked), and then my internet connection died on me! By the time it was restored it was all over, so I shut down my browser ...

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

... and went and had some soup and some cheese on toast and logged onto coffee hour elsewhere. (And home-brewed coffee was good too.)

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

8 — Well, I’d certainly like to go look at the building – that virtual tour makes me want to revisit (it’s been decades since I was last there). And why wouldn’t I also attend a service?

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

I’m not sure glad is the right word – certainly it was good to have attended, and it left me with a feeling of familiarity and inner stability, for which I was grateful.

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

The very poignant camera view from the west end down the nave during the organ voluntary, showing it set up as the COVID vaccination centre. And there is both sadness that this is how it is, but also the hope represented by the vaccine and by the Christian community offering their space to the wider community in this way.

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