Salisbury Cathedral, Salisbury, Wiltshire, England


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Salisbury Cathedral
Location: Salisbury, Wiltshire, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 1 December 2019, 5:00pm

The building

The Cathedral Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary was built all at one go in the 13th century. It sums up the Early English style. Although there are additions and reforms, the basic perfection is still there. The font, a 21st century contribution, adds water to the stone and glass. The cathedral close was cleared in the 18th century, so the perfection of the cathedral can be admired from all angles.

The church

The cathedral is the proud possessor of the best preserved of only four surviving 1215 copies of the Magna Charta. It is on display in the chapter house along with an interactive exhibition. The cathedral often hosts exhibitions of modern art, and sponsors a wide variety of events well documented on their website.

The neighborhood

Salisbury is a busy market town, still renowned for its beauty. The long-standing worry over the poisoning of a Russian spy has blighted Salisbury's tourist trade, but it seems slowly to be reviving.

The cast

Several bishops and choirs and banners and an increasing crowd of candles.

What was the name of the service?

From Darkness to Light.

How full was the building?

Packed. I have been told the cathedral holds 1,700 odd. A feature of this service is that you queue all round the cloister to get in. Last year some friends of mine who drove across England for this service were turned away with many others because the cathedral was full. It felt and looked as full this time.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

They didn't need to. It is now so well organised that you are handed a ticket when you arrive to avoid unpleasantness in the queue. Entry is free and no seats are booked.

Was your pew comfortable?

Modern wooden chair.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Full of anticipation. The service can't start until dark, so we watched the light fade through the stained glass. It was a long wait (on top of a long queue) but no one was complaining.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

‘I look from afar.’

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Printed service sheet, only visible when enough candles had been lit.

What musical instruments were played?

The refurbished organ (only for the hymns).

Did anything distract you?

Once the procession got going, nothing at all. An unfortunate priest said a few words from the pulpit first, but all was forgiven once the lights went out.

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

Unique. Real darkness, then the lighting of the Advent candle. A single treble voice proclaimed the Advent responsory from the Sarum Breviary. Other voices joined in and other candles were lit, first and very dramatically in the west gallery, high above the nave. The light was only from candles throughout. The procession moved from the west end to the high altar, singing the O Antiphons, interspersed with readings and hymns. (The Sarum Rite has eight O Antiphons; everyone else has seven.) The congregation (all 1,700 of us) joined enthusiastically in the hymns.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

No sermon.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The lighting. The whole thing is beautifully stage-managed so that the coming of the light is literally acted out.

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

Only the introduction, which tried to make this medieval experience relevant to us now.

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

No chance. We all talked to each other.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

No coffee. But we did get mulled wine and mince pies first while queueing in cloister. Admittedly we paid for them but I don't think anyone begrudged it.

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

10 — I have only been three times but I'd go as long as I get the chance. No one I asked knows how long this has been going on.

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

Tremendously moved and inspired.

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

The candles being lit above the west end, with shadowy figures reaching up to place them on high ledges.

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