Durham Cathedral, Durham, England


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Durham Cathedral
Location: Durham, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 20 July 2008, 11:15am

The building

Photo: © mattbuck and used under license The Cathedral Church of Christ, Blessed Mary the Virgin and St Cuthbert is a Norman architectural treasure. Construction began in 1093 and the nave was completed by 1133. It includes round arches, blind arcades, and massive pillars carved with deep chevrons and other designs. The cathedral remains remarkably intact and is the earliest surviving example of ribbed vaulting. The twin towers flanking the rose window at the east end, and the taller central tower (with bells that chime the quarters and the hours even though there is no external clock face) make it an icon of northeast England. Pews were only installed in Victorian times. The cathedral was built to contain and honour the tomb and shrine of St Cuthbert. It also houses, at the opposite (west) end of the building, the tomb and shrine of the Venerable Bede. In 2001 Durham Cathedral was voted Britain's favourite building in a BBC poll.

The church

Being a cathedral church in a university town, a shrine to two enormous saints, and a designated English Heritage site, the cathedral serves a number of potential "communities" and all of them are well served. There is music and worship and tourism and archeology, and stuff going on all the time. There are about 1,300 scheduled services a year, plus concerts, tours, exhibitions, and hundreds of thousands of visitors.

The neighborhood

The cathedral and the castle dominate the peninsula that forms the centre of the city of Durham. It is surrounded on three sides by the River Wear. The west end overlooks a gorge, and to the north (landward) stands Durham Castle, so it is well protected on four sides. There is an entertaining legend around the selection of the protected site, concerning a milkmaid who lost her cow and a monk's dream. Dun Cow Lane still runs adjacent to the cathedral. The university owns many of the residential buildings on the peninsula, and there is also a vibrant market square. So the immediate neighbours would be students, tourists and merchants. This marriage of history and geography, religion, academia and tourism is seldom seen. Even Oxford and Cambridge lack such spectacular settings.

The cast

The Very Revd Michael Sadgrove, dean, was the celebrant. He was assisted by the Revd David Sudron as deacon. The preacher was the Revd Canon David Kennedy.

What was the name of the service?

Sung Eucharist (with Sunday School).

How full was the building?

The nave was about half full, which translates to about 200 bottoms warming pews, but there were another 50 or more members of the congregation in the quire. However, there was to be a special service in the afternoon for the annual dismissal of the choristers, and it is possible the morning services (the earlier matins and this eucharist) were depleted in favour of that evensong.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

A friendly man in a red gown handed me the service book and pew leaflet as I entered, and said there were still seats in the quire. When I got to the top of the nave, however, there weren't, and a rather flustered steward was worried about how to communicate this fact to the back. So I did that for her and took a seat in the nave beside a pleasant but not inquisitive woman who I assume was a local, as she greeted people by name when we shared the peace. I didn't feel too self-conscious to be scribbling all over my pew leaflet during the service.

Was your pew comfortable?

Yes, well, I was lucky. The first half-dozen pews have nice thick red padded cushions running the length of them. Further back, I suppose the peasants suffered.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Reverential. Quiet. There was an appeal printed in the pew leaflet asking people to respect the needs of those who wish to prepare quietly for services, and pointing out that the organ voluntaries before and after are an integral part of the service.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Printed order of service (Common Worship Order One) together with the printed pew leaflet for the day and the New English Hymnal. Also in the pews were copies of the Book of Common Prayer, but these were not used at this service. (They would be used at evensong.)

What musical instruments were played?

Organ, a grand and beautiful instrument that I wish I could describe more knowledgeably, played brilliantly by James Lancelot, master of the choristers and organist. Please don't ask me whether he is related to the famous Sir Lancelot of Arthurian fame. I like to think so.

Did anything distract you?

There was one small child constantly screaming for attention. Its mother did her best to distract it, but it was a losing battle. She can't have got anything out of the service herself. It was extremely unfortunate.

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

Exactly, precisely, perfectly middle-of-the-road Anglican cathedral. Not too high, not too low, a glorious sung eucharist (Palestrina's Missa Brevis) with all necessary accoutrements but nothing superfluous.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

14 minutes.

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

8 – There was nothing wrong with it. It was clinically perfect. It just wasn't inspirational or profound for me. But it wasn't addressed to me. This was the day of the dismissal of the choir for the summer, which meant good-bye to some boys who had been playing a central part in the worship of the cathedral for five years. This only mattered to the people to whom it mattered, but to them it was obviously life-changing.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Canon Kennedy began by highlighting some of the events of the final year of the choir, which included a performance of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, which led into the Joseph story in Genesis. The thesis was that while in the modern, reality-TV version of Joseph, "any dream will do," in the Bible God is the source of dreams, and not any dream will do. Acknowledging that this play has done much to keep the Bible's story of Joseph alive in a time of biblical illiteracy, Canon Kennedy said that the Joseph story simply points us forward. Joseph was sent by God. He was betrayed and abandoned. But ultimately through him many were saved. It is not about a promised land, but the whole world. At this point he neatly brought it back to the choirboys, as they leave this place to "chase their dreams."

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The music was fantastic, both the choir and the organ. The aura of holiness was amazing, as Durham is a warm and personal cathedral.

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

Only that one screaming toddler. It reminded me of an advertising slogan of a famous ethical cosmetics company, which said: "If you think you are too small to make a difference, you've never been to bed with a mosquito."

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

They opened the floodgates to the tourists who had been patiently waiting for the service to end. The clergy made themselves available for a handshake as we left. I actually got to shake hands with the dean.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

If one wanted coffee, it was available in the restaurant. You can have a full Sunday roast lunch, but it's not free, and it's not about fellowship.

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

10 – What's not to like? It is such a beautiful, holy place. I would have given it a 12, but the drop-down menu stopped me at 10.

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

Yes, it gave me hope. Durham itself also gave me an enormous history lesson that helped me to realise that every 500 years or so there is a major shake-up in the Church. We shouldn't be surprised to be in the middle of one now, and neither should we be worried. The church is bigger than our petty issues of the day.

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

The spectacular, unique, holy building. This church cannot be separated from its history and its geography. It has both in abundance.

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