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2356: Southwark Cathedral, London
Southwark Cathedral (Exterior)
Mystery Worshipper: The Sensible Nun.
The church: Cathedral and Collegiate Church of St Saviour and St Mary Overie, London.
Denomination: Church of England, Diocese of Southwark.
The building: There has been a church on this site for at least 1,400 years, but the essence of the existing structure was built in 1212 after a devastating fire. The tower was completed in 1420, following another fire. A great deal of the interior was restored in the early 19th century, and again at the end of that century, in keeping with the original 13th century Gothic style. It’s quite small for an English cathedral, which gives it an intimate parish church feel, even for a formal service such as this. Major extensions were added in 2000, giving space for meetings and conferences, a library and education centre, a shop and a large restaurant.
The church: This is the mother church of the diocese of Southwark, which covers most of London south of the River Thames, serving 2.5 million people in 300 parishes. It has only been a cathedral since the creation of the diocese in 1905, prior to which the Bishop of Winchester had oversight of South London. Southwark is divided into three areas, served by suffragan bishops, two of whom were being consecrated today. Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre was nearby, and the famous playwright’s brother is buried in the church. Charles Dickens frequented the church, and the cathedral has honoured the novelist with a series of events this year, the bicentenary of his birth. It’s a busy place, with an impressive calendar of liturgical and cultural events. There are five regular services a day in the English cathedral music tradition.
The neighbourhood: This is, on one hand, gentrified South London, with any number of historic pubs and trendy modern wine bars. On the other hand it is still South London, historically less well off than across the river, and it is right next to the very busy London Bridge station. The noise of the trains was constant throughout the service. The area is historically extremely important, not just for the literary giants who lived and worked around here, but for its position at the foot of London Bridge. Today there is a mixture of social housing and extremely expensive riverside apartments nearby, as well as the contrast of the tallest building in Europe (for now), a piercing glass skyscraper called the Shard, and the ruins of the old Bishop of Winchester’s Palace, with a modern luxury penthouse visible through the frame of its empty rose window.
The cast: Bishops abounded. The Most Revd and Rt Hon. Rowan Douglas Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, presided. Many more mitres graced the platform: the Bishops of London and Rochester, the Bishop of Southwark, and the Bishop of Kingston (a suffragan of Southwark). There were also the two new suffragan bishops for Southwark being consecrated: The Revd Jonathan Clark being made Bishop of Croydon, and the Venerable Dr Michael Ipgrave becoming Bishop of Woolwich. The Very Revd Andrew Nunn, Dean of Southwark, preached. Canon John Rees, Principal Registrar of the Province of Canterbury, played his be-wigged part. There were also various and assorted deacons and chaplains assisting, and most of the bishops of Canterbury Province had, literally, a hand in the service. I genuinely lost count of the pairs in the procession, which was broken up by several vergers and also included a 40-strong adult choir.
The date & time: Wednesday, 21 March, 2012 (Commemoration of Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury and Reformation Martyr), 11.00am.

What was the name of the service?
Eucharist with the Ordination and Consecration of Bishops.

How full was the building?
Very full, including the retro-choir, which was apparently stuffed full of diocesan clergy. The interesting thing was how many people clearly knew each other. This was, unusually, a consecration of two bishops in their own cathedral. Even more unusually, both of them had been locally sourced, one from each side of the river, so it was a very London-based congregation.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
There were many ushers, from the door to the aisles, ensuring that reserved seating was appropriately allocated and no seats were wasted.

Was your pew comfortable?
It was a chair. It was fine. I had a good view.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
It was too busy to be reverential, but it was respectful. Before the service, the dean mounted the pulpit and gave a few announcements, about the importance of including Gift-Aid (a tax-rebate for charities) in one’s generous donation, and about transport to Lambeth Palace for those lucky enough to have a white ticket to a reception there, and about the photo-op that would take place after the service. Then he disappeared.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
After the lengthy processions and the entrance hymn, the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke the first words of the service: "Blessed be God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
Just a bespoke order of service for the day – which ran to 27 pages of quite small print.

What musical instruments were played?

Did anything distract you?
The cathedral currently has on display a massive modern sculpture of the crucified Christ called Die Harder, his body pierced with hundreds of pieces of wire coat hanger. I wanted to take a closer look, but it was far away behind the altar. It was very striking, except for a huge backdrop of white cloth, which covered most of the stained glass that should have been visible from the retro-choir. I was also occasionally distracted by the flickering flames of dozens of candles in a massive chandelier over the platform, but none of them ever went out. There was also a minor distraction when the second reader dropped something – presumably an earring – on her way to the lectern. The Bishop of London, seated on the platform nearby, picked it up and returned it to her!

Southwark Cathedral (Sculpture)
Photo: James Hatts

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was formal, structured, immaculately choreographed, but not stuffy. The actual service of consecration of the two bishops took place between the creed and the eucharistic prayer, and involved at one point the provincial registrar, in his archaic legal wig, mounting the pulpit to read the royal mandate from Her Majesty the Queen, and at another, the mass of bishops in their scarlet robes gathering around their new brothers with outstretched hands to pray for them.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
15 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 – The dean preached very well. Very funny, but he was preaching to a crowd of locals. Some of his jokes wouldn’t travel outside London, let alone outside England. In a nutshell, the watchword of the sermon was "inclusive."

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The great strength of the Church of England is that our vocation is to be there with a ministry, a mission and a message, wherever the need is greatest. The very word "inclusive" sends shivers down some spines, but Southwark Cathedral would continue to use it with pride, along with another word: "affirming." The Good Shepherd image was the first one the early Christians knew. Any church that even suggests that some are not welcome is not a good shepherd. Jesus set the example of inclusive, affirming love, and the Church must speak affirmingly, confidently, to give others confidence. Be confident (he charged the new bishops), be not afraid, and make the truth known to this generation. They want to hear it. They need to hear it.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Just the privilege of being there, really, to see one’s own bishop being consecrated, and to share the joy of such a once-in-a-lifetime occasion.

Southwark Cathedral (Bishops)

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Bit of a contradiction, but it was the temperature. It was freezing cold in that church, despite it being a lovely spring day.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
That was hard to do, in the great mass of people leaving. The Archbishop and the new bishops graciously stood around for a long time in the sunshine letting people take their pictures.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Well, if one was lucky enough to be invited to the reception, I daresay it was quite nice. For the rest, Southwark Cathedral does have a good refectory, but there were no refreshments on offer to the congregation.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
10 – If I weren’t already too involved in my own church, and if it were a little closer to home, I’d love to make it my base.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Even to be a member of the Church of England!

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The drama of the nature of the service – one doesn’t go to a consecration every day. But in reality, the image of that sculpture will probably stay with me longer.
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