Photo of Southwark Cathedral

Southwark Cathedral, London


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Southwark Cathedral
Location: London
Date of visit: Sunday, 11 November 2018, 10:50am

The building

Photo: © Dmitry Tonkonog and used under license The Cathedral and Collegiate Church of St Saviour and St Mary Overie has had cathedral status since only 1905 when the new diocese of Southwark was carved out of the older sees of London and Rochester. About half of the cathedral's fabric dates back to the medieval period, however, being remnants of the Priory of St Mary Overie, an Augustinian house founded immediately south of London Bridge in 1106. As London Bridge was for many centuries the only crossing of the Thames in or near London, the priory thrived at the southern entry to the capital. The nave is 19th century, though it fits well with older parts. The whole church is not particularly large, which helps give it the friendly atmosphere for which it is known. Tourists are often attracted to the Harvard Chapel, dedicated to the founder of Harvard University, in the United States, who was baptised here. An equally powerful attraction simply is curiosity about this large Gothic building wedged improbably between offices, railway and river.

The church

Southwark Cathedral really feels like the mother church of its diocese in a way that many Anglican cathedrals don't. With its friendly welcome and imaginative range of services and activities, it has built real links to the local communities of residents and office workers around it and, more widely, to the parishes across south London. The cathedral came to prominence when a terrorist attack took place on 3 June 2017 on London Bridge, just a few yards away. The excellent cathedral website attests to this; it also gives more on the fascinating history of the site.

The neighborhood

The cathedral's neighbours are today the busy London Bridge railway station, the Borough foodie market, and many offices of which the most conspicuous is the Shard, the tallest building in the UK, so called because of its glass-clad pyramidal appearance. The Sunday neighbourhood is different from the weekday one: more tourists than office workers. Trains rumbling into the busy London Bridge station can be heard outside the cathedral (and sometimes within too). The buildings surrounding may not be medieval, but there is a good sense of the bustling city coming right to the doorstep of the cathedral, just a short walk from the heart of London.

The cast

The Bishop of Southwark, the dean, several clergy, a substantial altar party, cathedral choir, and flag parties from uniformed and civic services.

What was the name of the service?

Choral Eucharist for Remembrance Sunday.

How full was the building?

Packed. As Remembrance Sunday has attracted a whole new following of persons, many of whom weren't born until well after World War II, I anticipated a good crowd and arrived 15 minutes early. But I still found the nave and both transepts were full – or almost; I discovered a seat in a far corner. I guess 700+ people.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

A welcomer on duty seemed rather flustered by the large numbers arriving and couldn't tell me where best to look for a seat. She asked me twice whether I was there to visit or for the service. Happily a sidesperson had a hunch where I might find a space.

Was your pew comfortable?

It was a chair and didn't squeak or wobble and was just about comfortable.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Subdued but widespread chatter. Some people waved to indicate spare seats, others to commandeer a service sheet (these had run out but some sidespersons persuaded earlybirds to share and redistribute surrendered copies). The Mayor of Southwark and various civic dignitaries were taking up their seats in the reserved front rows. A uniformed colour party were ambling at the rear of the cathedral. The cathedral bellringers were ringing half muffled – one peal barely audible, then the second loud – as is the tradition for commemorations and funerals. I noticed large red floral displays featuring poppies for remembrance.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

After a Latin introit from the choir, during which the clergy entered, the first words were: ‘In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.’

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Just the service sheets – though I was unlucky in getting one. Too few had been printed. So I stood and listened during the hymns. Fortunately the liturgy was fairly straightforward Common Worship so I was able to catch along most of the time.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ and bugle.

Did anything distract you?

When there were long silences, I imagined the action taking place in the nave or elsewhere out of sight. A woman in a cassock was inside the altar sanctuary taking photos with a long lens camera during the liturgy. Worse, she had not turned off the clicker on her camera. I guess the images were for the cathedral website, but her wandering about for the first 15 minutes to get the best shots and the clicking of the camera were both quite annoying. Even she took the hint and observed the two minute silence, however.

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

After the Latin introit and procession and a few words of introduction from the bishop, a lone bugler sounded the Last Post to announce the traditional two minute silence at 11.00am. We were marking this, the hour of the World War I armistice, on the exact centenary and to the minute. The first seconds of the silence were accompanied by the sonorous tolling of the cathedral bell: eleven strokes. After that – utter silence. Not even a gurgling babe could be heard. Later, a uniformed officer marched into the south transept where I sat to lay a wreath of red poppies at the memorial to those of the Auxiliary Fire Service who had lost their lives in two world wars; the AFS was comprised of volunteers, whose rooftop watches and fire fighting saved many lives, sometimes under intense bombing, at great personal risk to the volunteers. Vigilance and rapid action by the AFS also probably saved the fabric of this cathedral and of St Paul’s Cathedral across the river; both were hit by bombs and the resulting fire was promptly contained, so the damage was remarkably slight.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

15 minutes.

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

7 — The bishop gave a fairly wide-ranging contemplation on Remembrance.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

He began by reading the full text of Wilfred Owen's poem 'The Parable of The Old Man and the Young,' which is a modern retelling of the story of Abraham and Isaac, ending with the words ‘But the old man ... slew his son, and half the seed of Europe, one by one.’ Owen's, and by implication the bishop's, message is that modern war represents a turning away from God. He spoke of the need for Remembrance to be updated and inclusive, mentioning Stephen Bourne’s book Black Poppies, the story of contributions made by Britain’s black community to the war effort despite fierce opposition. Finally, the bishop brought his train of thought back to the eucharist as an act of remembrance.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The two minute silence announced by the bugler. The power of collective silence never fails to transport me. Is it heavenly? If your mind wanders to the horror of war or to particular casualties, maybe quite the other thing. On this occasion the fellowship and utter silence was spiritual balm.

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

The large and wheezy organ is in the south transept a few feet from my seat. Sadly this meant I could hear the accompaniment to the Durufle Requiem too well, but not the choir, though what I did hear sounded splendid. The anthem was the Angus Dei from Britten's War Requiem.

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

There was a great deal of quiet conviviality after the service. Many lingered in the body of the church to chat, some adjourned for coffee or lunch to the refectory in the new building adjacent, other sat outside in the small but attractive churchyard. I chatted to two or three others, then to an old friend whom I found to be present.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

On this occasion I didn't adjourn to the refectory – but previous visits have provided both good coffee and self-service lunches that by London standards are good value.

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

8 — This was a special occasion, but if all of the cathedral’s services are this spiritually moving, I will most certainly attend more.

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


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

The depth of silence as, after one hundred years, we continue to remember.

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