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860: Robson Memorial Cathedral, Ajmer, Rajasthan, India
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Robson Memorial Cathedral, Ajmer, Rajasthan, India
Mystery Worshipper: Egeria.
The church: Robson Memorial Cathedral, Ajmer, Rajasthan, India.
Denomination: Church of North India.
The building: A severe Victorian stone building, uncompromisingly British, on about the busiest roundabout in this busy city. I didn't get inside this time (see below), but I went inside last time I was in Ajmer, and despite some cheerful bits of Indian colour, it still looks as if the last British missionaries might pop out of the vestry door at any moment.
The church: Hard to tell, as this was a special day, but to judge from the appearance of the congregation, the members are a well-dressed and well-behaved collection of people.
The neighbourhood: Ajmer has a mixed population of Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Jains, Parsees and Christians. Over the road there's a large Jain temple and not far away is the city's major religious complex, the Muslim shrine built round the tomb of a medieval Sufi saint.
The cast: There was no cast list and I couldn't see what was happening, but a number of different (all male) voices blared out over the PA system.
What was the name of the service?
I don't know the proper name (I only heard about it by word of mouth) but it was the Easter morning service.

How full was the building?
The building itself was obviously full long before we got there, and the courtyard behind it had been turned into an overflow area, with rows of chairs shaded by a huge awning. That in its turn was already completely full, and we found a few chairs at the side of the cathedral, on the way to the courtyard.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
A man who was presumably on duty showed us where the few remaining seats were.

Was your pew comfortable?
It was a chair, basic but reasonably comfortable.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
I missed it – we got there about 20 minutes late, as we'd come from the beautiful and powerfully numinous Sufi shrine (this was during a religious studies field visit), where we were greeted very hospitably and shown around absolutely everything.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
I missed them, too – but as they would have been in Hindi, I probably wouldn't have caught them anyway!

What books did the congregation use during the service?
Only hymn books, and people all seemed to have brought their own.

What musical instruments were played?
What sounded like an electric organ accompanied the hymns. There were also three of four rockin'-with-Jesus-Indian-style songs at various points, but stuck as we were, staring at the side wall of the cathedral, I could only identify a generic drum-and-guitar sort of noise.

Did anything distract you?
We were very near a little side entrance to the building where there was a supply of water, and thirsty members of the congregation wandered over to have a drink every so often.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was very restrained. The congregation sat there from 9.00 until 11.30 listening to what sounded like a succession of speeches, interspersed with the occasional prayer (identifiable because it ended with "amin") and all of two hymns, and the songs I've already mentioned. Everyone else in our party got completely bored before long and decided to go back to the hotel.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
At least 40 minutes. I can't be more exact, because it took me some time to realise that this was the sermon at last, rather than just another speech. I worked out what it was because like a lot of educated Indians the preacher dropped into English every so often, so I had some idea of what it was about.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
2 – I'm probably being unfair, because I could only understand a little of it, but he seemed to repeat himself endlessly without getting anywhere much. But there may be a difference between Indian and British preaching styles.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
If you put Jesus in the centre of your life, your life will be peaceful, useful and powerful. This didn't seem particularly relevant to Easter Day, but perhaps there was a whole lot in the Hindi I missed out on.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
All the women were wearing their best silk saris in honour of Easter and there were some utterly gorgeous fabrics on display. And everyone seemed intent on the service, although it lasted so long. But for numinous spirituality, it didn't compare with the Sufi shrine I'd just been to, where devotees hurled handfuls of rose petals at the saint's tomb. The Christians celebrated Easter much more prosaically.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Being hot and thirsty and not having the slightest idea what was going on. And the growing realisation that just because you have a cathedral and a bishop this does not necessarily mean in the Church of North India that you have a liturgy – or even communion – at the Easter service. I sat there for two and a half hours of a Hindi hymn sandwich only to discover that this was all there was on offer!

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Absolutely nothing. Everyone poured out of the gates and made for their cars and motorbikes, greeting friends on the way. I hung about right outside waiting for my taxi to arrive and I was completely ignored. Finally, when the crowd had thinned a little, one nice man came up to me and wished me a happy Easter in English, and told me a little about his work for the church.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
1 – It's always good to be with other Christians, but in this case the cultural differences were just too great.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, but it made me very homesick for my own church back home!

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The refrain to one of the hymns. Each verse ended with the words "Jay, jay Yesu", which roughly means, "Glory to Jesus".
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