St Mary's Cathedral, Edinburgh, Scotland


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Mary's Cathedral
Location: Edinburgh, Scotland
Date of visit: Sunday, 8 August 2010, 10:30am

The building

Not to be confused with the Roman Catholic cathedral of the same name, St Mary's Cathedral claims to be the largest ecclesiastical building in Scotland and is situated in the heart of Edinburgh's bustling west end. It is certainly very large and its three spires can be seen from a very long way away. Consecrated in 1879, the building is the work of the Victorian English architect Sir George Gilbert Scott and is considered to be his masterpiece. It was funded largely by the generosity of two sisters, Barbara and Mary Walker, who bequeathed their entire fortune to the Church on condition that a cathedral be built on a site of their choosing. Gothic in design, the interior is remarkable for the large rood separating nave from quire, the high altar with its decorative marble reredos, and splendid stained glass in the east windows.

The church

They pride themselves on their music program. Their choir is said to be the only choir in Scotland who sing daily services, and the first in all of Great Britain to admit girls to sing alongside the boy choristers. There are two celebrations of the eucharist each Sunday, one following the 1929 Scottish liturgy and the other the 1982 liturgy. Evening prayer is also offered on Sundays. During the week there is morning office, eucharist, and evening prayer, but not all on the same days.

The neighborhood

The area surrounding the cathedral is mostly residential but it is within ten minutes of the famous Royal Mile and Edinburgh castle.

The cast

I was unable to establish the names of the two male celebrants, but the sermon was delivered by the chaplain, the Revd Nicki McNelly.

What was the name of the service?

Festal Eucharist.

How full was the building?

Mostly full – about 250 people altogether.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

I was greeted with a cheery hello by one of the three or four welcomers as soon as I walked in. General smiling was going on but no one actually introduced themselves.

Was your pew comfortable?

The cathedral has replaced its pews with very comfortable padded wooden chairs.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

There was a happy buzz about the building as people came in. Many knew each other. I asked the person next to me if he was a regular worshipper here, but he was also a visitor.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ." But this was spoken only after an enormous procession of choirboys, acolytes and clergy had arrived and the first hymn had been sung ("He who would valiant be").

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Just a service booklet that contained all I needed. The service was taken from the 1982 Scottish Liturgy.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ – fabulously!

Did anything distract you?

Five minutes after the beginning of the service, two middle-aged gentlemen with special needs arrived, rather noisily, laden with plastic bags, and sat down in the next row to me. They both joined in the service with great gusto – although their responses were usually said very loudly just a moment after everyone else's. Although this was a distraction to a small extent, I enjoyed it, as they were so involved in the service. And more about them later.

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

The worship was very similar to my own traditional Anglican. But no stiff upper lips here! Quite the contrary – there was an atmosphere of warmth and deep joy throughout. I particularly enjoyed the celebrant, who caught people's eyes as he processed into the cathedral and gave them cheerful smiles and nods.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

12 minutes.

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

7 – Lovely chatty style – anecdotes from her past – a pleasure to listen to.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The chaplain said that we are inundated with texts, emails, 24-hour news. Our lives are polluted by noise and an excess of "stuff". Jesus taught us about what really matters in life. He told people that they should sell their possessions and get ready for God. We spend our lives preparing for other things, but what of our souls? Do we have a plan for eternity? Getting ready to meet Jesus is something we seem to put off until later, but we need to be ready now: he could come at any time.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

For me, it's always the music, so the choir. Fourteen boys and girls and nine seniors (seen smoking outside the choir vestry as I arrived – naughty!) and the organist provided the most wonderful music. The setting for the service was Mozart's Coronation Mass and the anthem was Bruckner's Locus Iste – absolutely beautifully done. The organist's voluntary (Bach's Fantasia in G Major, BWV 572, sometimes called Pièce d'Orgue for its "French" ornamentation) was also a real thrill.

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

It was a little bit cold – I know, I know, I was in Edinburgh, and perhaps I should have dressed more warmly, but I honestly thought that a t-shirt and a cardigan would be warm enough on a sunny August morning. I can imagine that as the temperatures fall in the autumn and winter months, it is going to be very cold indeed in this vast building unless they have a very efficient heating system.

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

I joined the massive queue for coffee and biscuits. No one from the regular congregation spoke to me, but a couple from Australia did. I tried to speak to the chaplain, hovering in a lonely way near her for at least five minutes, but she was whisked away by one of the wardens.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

The coffee was served in plastic cups but it was actually quite decent coffee (fair trade). There were also lots of plain but tasty biscuits.

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

8 – Sufficiently warmly dressed, I would be very keen to come to this cathedral regularly.

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

Oh definitely!

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

What I really remember is that the two gentlemen with special needs that I mentioned earlier. They turned out to be highly valued members of the cathedral community. They both had jobs after the service, tidying up the books and hymn sheets, and were greeted and chatted to by all the regular worshippers. How I wish that all churches were so inclusive!

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