St Mary's Episcopal Cathedral, Edinburgh, Scotland


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Mary's Episcopal Cathedral
Location: Edinburgh, Scotland
Date of visit: Thursday, 21 May 2020, 8:30am

The building

The turbulent history of the Scottish Episcopal Church means that many of its present-day churches and cathedrals date from the more expansive Victorian period. The Cathedral Church of St Mary the Virgin was designed in the Gothic style by Sir George Gilbert Scott and opened in 1879. Subsequent additions have produced the impressive building we see today – but today’s service, on account of the COVID-19 crisis, did not actually take place in this church!

The church

In addition to the daily cycle of prayer and worship, the cathedral supports a busy programme of groups and activities that are open to all: Sunday groups for children and young people; groups that meet in the week for prayer, study, cultural and social activities; and various outreach and fundraising activities for charities both local and worldwide.

The neighborhood

The city of Edinburgh is the capital of Scotland, popular with tourists, home to the Scottish Parliament, and a World Heritage Site. As well boasting many fine historic buildings, the city is a centre for the arts, the Edinburgh Festival (and its fringe!) being world-famous.

The cast

The Bishop of Edinburgh presided and preached. The epistle was read by two young people. The gospel and the intercessions were read by two priests of the diocese.

What was the name of the service?

Holy Communion on Ascension Day.

How full was the building?

The service took place partly outside in the open air, and partly within the Bishop's House. Those reading the epistle, gospel, and intercessions, did so from their own homes. There were about 100 people watching the service live on YouTube, but there may well be more watching later in the day.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

An informal greeting from the bishop before the service proper began.

Was your pew comfortable?

My dining-table chair again. OK for the purpose!

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

The service began with the bishop filming his way up a woodland path, to share some wonderful wide-ranging views over the city of Edinburgh. So yes, it was quiet.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

‘While staying with them, Jesus ordered them not to leave Jerusalem ...’ (Acts 1:4-11, which reading formed the preparation for the service).

What books did the congregation use during the service?

No books, but the liturgy was available as a download from the Scottish Episcopal Church website. I believe it was the contemporary-language 1982 eucharist that was used.

What musical instruments were played?

An organ accompaniment to two hymns – no singing, but the words were displayed on the screen.

Did anything distract you?

On the wall behind the table he used as an altar, the bishop has a sort of ceramic, or mosaic, depiction of the Last Supper, very reminiscent of Leonardo da Vinci's famous painting. This reminded me irresistibly of a certain novel about a mysterious Code, part of which is set in a Scottish Episcopal chapel not so very far from Edinburgh!

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

Certainly informal, with the first part of the service outside, or in the homes of those assisting. For the eucharist proper, the bishop wore a very fine gold/red chasuble, and kept to the words of the liturgy as provided beforehand. The Scottish Episcopal Church's worship is, I understand, generally fairly high church in style.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

9 minutes.

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

9 — The bishop spoke clearly and concisely into the camera, with no eccentricities. It felt as though he was speaking to each one of us individually – which, given the situation, I suppose he was.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Our lives are limited at present, and the loss of freedom is keenly felt. We are all confined by space and time, in any case, but Ascension Day reminds us that God is not so limited. Jesus’ physical departure – however hard it is to picture! – leads to his promise to be with us for ever, however confined we may seem to be. The Thy Kingdom Come prayer initiative, being shared by many churches between today and Pentecost, entrusts to God the things we cannot change, and we see the signs of the Kingdom in many of the ways the present COVID-19 crisis is being dealt with. Even if our ‘new normal’ is strange, and hard to fathom, we are ‘in Christ’, and therefore we have a place in his purposes.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The lovely views over Edinburgh, and the beautiful words of what was actually quite a long eucharistic prayer.

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

Fortunately, no embarrassment, on account of lockdown, but it's still hellish not to be able to worship in a ‘real’ church with ‘real’ people.

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


How would you describe the after-service coffee?

It was still far too early for sherry, so I had another piece of toast and Marmite.

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

8 — I'd love to visit Edinburgh again, and would certainly make for the cathedral. I enjoy the Scottish Episcopal liturgy – Anglican, but not Church of England!

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


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

That rather strange mosaic on the bishop's wall.

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