St Paul's Cathedral, London (Exterior)

St Paul's Cathedral, London


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Paul's Cathedral
Location: London
Date of visit: Sunday, 2 April 2017, 6:00pm

The building

What can be said about St Paul's Cathedral – the mother church of London and one of the best known buildings in the world, the largest and most splendid achievement of Sir Christopher Wren – that hasn't already been said?

The church

The worshipping community is – like the visitors who are there on weekdays – notably international and youthful. Perhaps the congregation for this event was older and more English (inasmuch as one can guess from appearances) than the regular Sunday congregation.

The neighborhood

Mostly offices, mostly empty on Sunday, and mostly ugly.

The cast

The Revd James Milne, sacrist, read the scripture passages and kept the incense burning. But Peter Holder, sub-organist, played the main role from the organ console.

What was the name of the service?

Organ Meditation – Tournemire's Seven Last Words of Christ (described by the Cathedral as a "liturgical performance"). Featured was the work entitled Sept Chorals - Poèmes d'orgue pour les sept paroles du Xrist (Seven Chorale-Poems for Organ for the Seven Last Words of Christ) by the French late-Romantic composer Charles Arnould Tournemire

How full was the building?

About 150 seated under the dome, with quite a few tourists listening at the back, as only the west end is open for visits on Sundays. Most were attentive in spite of the leisurely pace of this event.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Someone was handing out service sheets as I entered the part of the cathedral reserved for those attending.

Was your pew comfortable?

The chairs are comfortable though there is not enough leg-room between the rows.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?


What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain..."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

There was a service sheet that had all the scriptural quotations.

What musical instruments were played?

Just the organ, a huge and much reconstructed instrument that is mostly on either side of the choir stalls, with further ranks at the rear of the nave.

Did anything distract you?

The movable organ console was positioned close to the congregation under the dome, so I was sitting quite close to the organist. I closed my eyes in case his grappling with the instrument distracted me.

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

The worship – for this was treated as such, not as a concert – was slow and meditative. The chorales are mostly slow-paced and I approached them as an aid to an hour of guided meditation on the brief texts. An incense burner behind the nave altar was regularly charged by the priest after his readings from the gospels that give us the "seven last words." Depending on which evangelist you choose, there are either fewer or many more than seven words that Jesus spoke from the Cross. The chorales by Tournemire, which he wrote in 1935, the last year of his life, are quite vivid and go from the quietest bass sounds to thunderous and back again. They suit the very resonant acoustic of the Cathedral well – sometimes in this huge space more intimate music gets lost.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

There was none.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

There was a moment when the sunset suddenly started to stream through the west windows onto the stonework and clouds of incense – a glorious golden light.

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

But this prompted a fidgeting member of the congregation to start whispering to her companion. Happily she left after 10 minutes.

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

We were encouraged by the service sheet not to applaud at the end. Following the very quiet last chorale, most sat quietly for a minute or two before shuffling to the west door.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There was none.

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

N/A – This was a one-off event in preparation for Easter: imaginative, beautifully done. I worship occasionally at the Cathedral, which is, in spite of its size, welcoming for more conventional Sunday services.

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 sunset catching the incense cloud.

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