St Paul's Anglican Cathedral, Dunedin, New Zealand


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Mystery Worshipper: Cantate Domino
Church: St Paul's Anglican Cathedral
Location: Dunedin, New Zealand
Date of visit: Sunday, 6 February 2011, 10:30am

The building

A very grand Gothic cathedral with a few surprises inside. The cathedral, despite having no tower, dominates the centre of Dunedin and looms over the Octagon (the town square) and the Municipal Chambers (town hall). It is reached by a flight of massive marble steps. The nave was built in 1919, but the money only allowed for a small chancel. In 1971 the chancel was replaced with a modern concrete edifice, at which point the organ was rebuilt and the interior re-ordered. The Gothic nave and the concrete chancel in fact harmonise quite well, as the concrete is quite restrained. The lurid Perspex cross above the altar is, however, an artistic misfortune.

The church

The Anglican community in Dunedin has always been a minority in this Scottish settlement, and the cathedral draws its congregation from the top end of town. However, the cathedral promotes many social activities, including chaplaincy at the university, family care, and a parish nurse ministry. The cathedral has a commitment to being a welcoming place and kept its doors open over the New Year holiday, inviting revellers in to say a prayer.

The neighborhood

The cathedral has probably the best site in Dunedin, and makes an emphatically Anglican statement in a town historically dominated by Scottish Presbyterians. Nearby are major public buildings, including the town hall, the art gallery, the law courts and the railway station. Around the Octagon are many pubs and restaurants.

The cast

The dean, the Very Revd Dr Trevor James, the dean's verger, two associate clergy, a liturgical assistant, and an organ scholar.

What was the name of the service?

Sung Eucharist (which was in fact a said eucharist)

How full was the building?

For a cathedral, it was a dreadfully sparse congregation. No more than 40 in a building that could seat hundreds.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

A warden handed me the order of service with a smile.

Was your pew comfortable?

A solid wooden pew, but I wasn't unduly uncomfortable.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

I was mainly distracted by wondering where the congregation had gone. I kept expecting a last minute surge of people, which never came.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Good morning, St Paul's," to which a well trained congregation responded with, "Good morning, Mr Dean."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

There was a printed order of service for the modern liturgy, including some parts in the Maori language.

What musical instruments were played?

The gigantic organ was ably played by a young organ scholar.

Did anything distract you?

Several things: the small congregation; but also the total absence (apart from the hymns) of music for what was billed as a sung eucharist. However, I learnt from the pew bulletin that earlier that week the director of music had been sacked and half the choir had left, which may explain the unexpectedly unmusical aspects of the service.

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

Very dignified cathedral worship. The dean was verged around the chancel with great decorum by a verger in a black gown with a white bow tie and carrying a silver staff. I was very struck by one moment, when the dean and three liturgical assistants lined up in a row and held their chalices aloft, while inviting us all to the Lord's table. It was a very impressive tableau.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

15 minutes.

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

8 – The dean is a confident speaker.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The sermon was a fairly original discourse on the need not to be selfish. In particular, the dean spoke at some length on the dreadful message contained in the song "My Way", made famous by Frank Sinatra.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

Even though there was no sung service, the hymns were lovely and were by coincidence some of my favourites.

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

I was happy, but given the recent events involving the director of music, I imagine there were quite a few simmering tensions among this congregation.

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

The dean and I chatted for a a little while and quite a few people spoke to me about my t-shirt, which depicted a Dalek from the BBC television show Doctor Who. Obviously the science fiction fans in the congregation made a beeline for me.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Not trusting church brew, I went to a coffee shop down the road.

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

8 – Dignified worship, original sermon, good music.

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

Absolutely, but it would be nice to have some more around.

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

The absence of congregation and choir.

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