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2639: St John's Cathedral, Oban, Scotland
St John's Cathedral, Oban (Exterior)
Mystery Worshipper: Church Mouse.
The church: Cathedral Church of St John the Divine, Oban, Scotland.
Denomination: Scottish Episcopal Church, Diocese of Argyll and The Isles.
The building: A red stone church dating from 1908, the work of architect James Chalmers, who designed dozens of churches, municipal buildings, exhibit halls and private homes. It has a rather confusing, higgledy-piggledy appearance, as Chalmers' design is attached to the original building of a half century earlier and was never fully realised due to lack of funds. To call it "incomplete" doesn't quite prepare you for steel girders instead of stone pillars in the main nave and a steel girder and stressors holding the roof together. There is a magnificent painting behind the altar, a stunning organ, and carvings in the chancel, and this incomplete roof above. The decor includes some curiosities, the most curious of which has got to be a life belt from HMS Jason, which was hit by an enemy mine near Coll during the First World War, resulting in the loss of 25 sailors. The crew, before their last fateful tour of duty, had worshipped at St John’s.
The church: The cathedral is the main church for a wide area, including the islands of Mull and beyond, although islanders would not have been able to attend this service due to the inclement weather. In addition to Sunday and midweek eucharist, they sponsor Bible study, a home visitation program, and music recitals. The cathedral and its halls are available for bookings.
The neighbourhood: The church is in a side road in Oban and is the second cathedral in town, the other being the Roman Catholic cathedral for Argyll and the Islands. Oban is a fishing and ferry port, with regular sailings to the Outer and Inner Hebrides.
The cast: The Very Revd Nicki McNelly, provost.
The date & time: Christmas Day, 25 December 2013, 10.15am.

What was the name of the service?
Family Eucharist.

How full was the building?
Three-quarters filled, mainly from the front – which was commented on. Apparently the front pews are not normally filled. The family I was sitting next to had driven 12 miles to attend.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
I was greeted with a handshake at the door by someone on duty. I also got chatting to the family in the same pew as we worked our way around the service sheets.

Was your pew comfortable?
Wooden pew that was reasonably comfortable. There was adequate space to kneel and kneelers provided.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quietly expectant – some chatting, but subdued and allowing the organ music to be heard. The choir were gathering in the room behind us. While we waited, the organist played the second movement of the Pastorale in F major, BWV 590, by Bach.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"We start this service this morning by singing our first hymn: 'O come all ye faithful.'"

What books did the congregation use during the service?
Booklet for the service containing the liturgy and hymns, card with the mass setting, double sided A5 piece of paper entitled "Instant Nativity Play."

What musical instruments were played?
Organ. The mass setting was David Thorne's Mass of St Thomas. The hymns were a standard mixture of Christmas favourites. The recessional was Bach's Canonic Variations (Fugetta) on the Christmas Hymn "Vom Himmel hoch", BWV 769.

Did anything distract you?
The mish-mosh of architecture. I was fascinated by the contrast between the finished aspects of the cathedral and the unfinished: an ornately carved pulpit under a roof held together with steel hawsers; an organ loft with a magnificent organ also under this roof; a nave that had carved pillars supported by steel props at the east end and reinforced steel props at the west end.

St John's Cathedral, Oban (Interior)

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Relaxed formal style: robed choir and organist, incense and processions, but nevertheless relaxed. A sensible peace (we shook hands around us, no wandering around).

Exactly how long was the sermon?
No sermon. Instead, we were told we were taking part in an instant nativity play. As we came into this service we were all handed a double-sided A5 piece of paper with a nativity play script and a character highlighted (out of 22). The provost announced the play, but there were enough people with the same part that it wasn't compulsory. There were lines where we were all expected to join in.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
Varied – The random selection of parts made for some hilarity: the part of Elizabeth was read by a man with a deep bass voice: "I am the cousin, old Zach's wife. When Mary arrived, my babe leapt to life." The choir read the angels' parts: "We are the angels, a heavenly choir, who startled the shepherds around the campfire."

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The story was a retelling of the nativity story, ending with all saying: "We are the folk who have good news to tell: God's Son has come, our Emmanuel."

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Being part of a community worshipping reverently and in good order on Christmas morning, with space given in the service to pray.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The frustration of wanting to know why there was a life belt on a pillar in the nave (before I had researched it and learnt why, that is).

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
No coffee was served, it being Christmas day. To my surprise, though, I was chatted to by both the people on duty. Also, the provost shook my hand. Most of the rest of the congregation were greeting each other and introducing family members from afar. The warden on duty confessed that he didn't know many people there either.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
None, but we were all encouraged to take a chocolate from a box on our way out.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 – This was the service I was happiest in of the three I attended over Christmas. I would consider making this my regular church if I lived in the area.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. I was very glad I'd made it to this service and been part of a Christmas day service.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The strange architecture of the cathedral.
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