westminster cathedral

Westminster Cathedral, Westminster, London


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Mystery Worshipper: Presbyter Incognito
Church: Westminster Cathedral
Location: Westminster, London
Date of visit: Thursday, 21 May 2009, 12:00pm

The building

The Metropolitan Cathedral of the Most Precious Blood, London, is the largest Roman Catholic church in the United Kingdom. The land for the cathedral, which had formerly housed a prison in what was then largely a slum area, was acquired by Cardinal Henry Edward Manning in 1883, but construction began under his successor, Cardinal Herbert Vaughan. The chosen architect was John Francis Bentley, master of the neo-Gothic and Byzantine styles. Neither lived to see the completion of the project, as Bentley died in 1902 and the first public service to take place in the cathedral was the cardinal's funeral in 1903. Built in the early Christian Byzantine style, Westminster has been described as "a series of surprises." There are many features to draw the attention: fine mosaic work, an imposing baldacchino and high altar, a massive hanging crucifix, copious amounts of marble, massive Stations of the Cross by the Arts and Crafts sculptor Eric Gill, several side chapels, the shrines of saints (with the body of St John Southworth exposed in a glass case) and the tombs of former archbishops dotted around. The building remains incomplete, especially the sombre domes overhead, which are intended to be covered in mosaic. The cost, however, would probably now be the equivalent of the gross domestic product of some nations.

The church

Westminster Cathedral fulfils many roles. It is a tourist attraction and place of pilgrimage for many. It is also the home of a large and thriving parish. Its primary role, however, is as the cathedral church of the Archbishop of Westminster. As such it is the mother church of the Catholics in the Archdiocese of Westminster, which comprises most of London north of the River Thames, and the county of Hertfordshire. It is also often described as the mother church of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, given the prominence of the Archbishop of Westminster – each one hitherto having been created a cardinal by the Pope.

The neighborhood

Close to the bustling area around Victoria Station, a major transport hub in London, and to the Houses of Parliament in Westminster. There are large, smart mansion blocks in the immediate vicinity. Many homeless people also congregate near the cathedral, so that the major charitable work of the cathedral is in the area of homelessness.

The cast

A cast of thousands. Included were the Most Revd Faustino Sainz Munoz, Papal Nuncio to the United Kingdom; His Eminence Cormac Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor, retiring Archbishop of Westminster; a handful of cardinals; a whole bevy of bishops; a shuffle of canons; a swarm of deacons; and about 500 concelebrating priests, from both the Archdiocese of Westminster and the Archdiocese of Birmingham, from which Vincent Nichols had been translated. Also the renowned choir of the cathedral. Among the honoured guests were the Most Revd and Rt Hon. Rowan David Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury; the Most Revd and Rt Hon. John Sentamu, Archbishop of York; the Rt Revd and Rt Hon. Richard John Carew Chartres, Bishop of London; several Orthodox bishops; the Most Noble Edward Fitzalan-Howard, Duke of Norfolk; ministers of state and several MPs. But at the centre, the new Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols.

What was the name of the service?

Installation of the Most Revd Vincent Gerard Nichols as 11th Archbishop of Westminster

How full was the building?

Filled to capacity – around 2000 people. It was a ticket only affair. Some were seated in side chapels (helpfully equipped with plasma televisions).

Did anyone welcome you personally?

There was an army of welcomers, all helpfully bearing steward identity tags. They showed those arriving to their allocated seats, in a friendly but disciplined way.

Was your pew comfortable?

Individual chairs, with hinged cushioned kneelers. These make a clattering sound, like a Gatling gun, when the whole congregation lowers them!

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Well, this was interesting. It was really like a series of warm-up acts. The service itself was due to start at 12.00 noon, and the congregation had been asked to be seated by 11.00. So there was a lot of pre-service atmosphere! It began with the cathedral chaplains singing the office of Lauds at 11.00. Then all the concelebrating priests processed in at 11.15, while various people played "spot the priest" as they recognised their own priests entering. The cathedral chapter appeared and sang the office of Tierce at 11.30. Then all the bishops of England and Wales, the visiting cardinals, and ecumenical guests processed in at 11.45. Some priests were obviously playing "who's that bishop?" at this point. This all made for great excitement and anticipation, which was palpable when a clock in the cathedral chimed noon, and immediately the great west door was swung open, allowing light to stream in. Just then a trumpet fanfare sounded. What a way to indicate that it was all starting!

What were the exact opening words of the service?

Well, in fact there were three services, apart from the curtain raiser offices. First, the chapter processed to the west door to receive the archbishop as the choir chanted "Tu es pastor ovium, princeps Apostolorum" (You are the shepherd of the sheep and prince of the Apostles). What was said at the door was not public. As the archbishop and canons processed up the long nave, the choir sang a heavenly piece, Summae Trinitati (to the Most Holy Trinity), to a new musical composition by James MacMillan. As the procession arrived in the sanctuary, the first spoken words were the versicle and response: "Lord save your servant, who puts his trust in you." The first words of the installation service were spoken by the Papal Nuncio, in heavily accented English: "As Papal Nuncio it is my responsibility to require that the apostolic letter of authority from the Holy See be read."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

A handsomely produced booklet on good quality paper. This contained all the words of the service as well as helpful explanatory notes.

What musical instruments were played?

Trumpets! There were a number of trumpet fanfares. Also the majestic cathedral organ.

Did anything distract you?

The service was being broadcast by the BBC. I was distracted by how discreet they actually were. I kept trying to spot the cameras and crew, but they were virtually invisible!

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

Majestic. There was no doubt that this was an important event. But it was not at all stuffy – relaxed reverence is probably the best description. The ceremony was carried out according to the ancient rite used for the reception and installation of the archbishops of Canterbury prior to the Reformation. After the reading of the apostolic letter of authority, the new archbishop received the crosier from Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor. This was a poignant moment, since it had been Vincent Nichols who handed the crosier to the cardinal when he was installed nine years ago. Next, the new archbishop was greeted by the provost and canons of the metropolitan chapter, followed by other diocesan representatives. The Archbishop of Canterbury then spoke words of greeting on behalf of Churches Together. Mass got underway with a resounding rendition of the Gloria in excelsis from Palestrina's Missa Tu Es Petrus. Mass was celebrated at the cathedral's high altar, with the versus populum altar and the platform on which it stood having been removed (one hopes that this will be a permanent change). Significant portions were in Latin. During the eucharistic prayer, all 500 concelebrants stretched out their hands toward the sacred elements and prayed that they may "become for us the body and blood of Jesus Christ, your only Son, our Lord," a touching symbol of the unity of the presbyterate of the archdiocese with its new archbishop. Communion was distributed very efficiently to those in the congregation by the auxiliary bishops and a number of priests, so that the service did not drag. For those who were not Catholics, a blessing was offered. The service ended with a solemn Te Deum sung to Palestrina's setting, alternating with verses in plainsong sung by the congregation.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

17 minutes.

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

9 – Archbishop Nichols is a skilled communicator with an engaging style and clarity of expression. There was real engagement with a wide variety of issues facing the Church and society.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Faith has a place in our society, and faith communities should not be squeezed out of public debate.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The music, especially the trumpets! The great Te Deum at the end of the service was particularly splendid. Then the personal touches: the new archbishop knelt at the tomb of Cardinal Hume, who had ordained him as bishop in the cathedral in 1992. The archbishop's family brought up the gifts of bread and wine, and particularly moving was his severely disabled brother bearing a ciborium.

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

Nothing today. Old Nick didn't get a look-in!

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

As a clergyman, I had been invited to one of the several official receptions that were taking place.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

We had wine and very good food laid on for us. I cannot comment on what was served elsewhere.

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

10 – if I could be an ordinary, regular worshipper. The choir must give the choirs of angels a run for their money.

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

Absolutely. There was a sense of confidence without any hint of triumphalism. The new archbishop is a gifted man who will lead us well. The liturgy itself was splendid: well executed but not fussy. It was a day of rejoicing.

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

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, the retiring archbishop, giving a few words at the end. He brought his usual charm and humour to the occasion, which made the service end on a light note, after all the preceding splendour. All previous Archbishops of Westminster had died in office. The cardinal said he was delighted that he had achieved "a minor ambition" in being able to hand over the see to his successor rather than making space for him in the hitherto customary way.

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