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  1071: Southwark Cathedral, London

Southwark Cathedral, London

Mystery Worshipper: Holly tree.
The church: Southwark Cathedral, London.
Denomination: Church of England.
Comment: We have received a comment on this report.
The building: Lovely bit of Gothic cathedral, but with a pleasantly light, bright, warm and airy interior – rather than the austere, dark, cool environment of some cathedrals. The building dates from the 13th century, when it was part of an Augustinian monastery, and it's only been used as a public cathedral since 1905.
The church community: For a big, posh cathedral in the middle of London, it felt surprisingly local, and the congregation was a good mix of young and old, black and white, with and without children. There was also a very random selection of attire, from suits to sweat-pants, hats to bandanas. It seems like anything goes at Southwark Cathedral, which gives integrity to their display of inclusivechurch.net postcards by the door. I was also impressed by the evening talks advertised: a Bible study series was on offer as well as evenings called "Sharing our passions", where church members do a presentation on a random subject that's close to their heart, and lead a discussion about it.
The neighbourhood: The cathedral is squeezed in between gleaming City offices, noisy London Bridge railway tracks and the scruffy but increasingly bourgeois Borough market. Perhaps this contradictory location part-explains the Cathedral's inclusive approach to church. Every Saturday, members of the congregation do a stall in the market offering cakes, gifts and information about the cathedral. The newsletter describes it as "projecting the cathedral beyond the walls of the church". One of their recent customers, a punk rocker, put it more bluntly, apparently asking them, "Are you doing the God thing?"
The cast: The Very Rev. Colin Slee, who is the dean of the cathedral, preached; Bible readings were done by Sylvia Francis-Mullins and Jane Houseago; and intercessory prayers were led by Suzanne Keys.

What was the name of the service?
Choral eucharist, 11am.

How full was the building?
Full, but without seats crammed into every available nook – around 300 people.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
As I walked in, a lady was stood at the door handing out service sheets, and she gave me a very friendly smile and hello. Nobody else said anything to me for quite some time.

Was your pew comfortable?
Ouch! Not at all. They were very hard bench seats with a thin cushion and a narrow plank of back support parallel to the seat, which made me want to fidget the entire time. Is this why these formal services have regular standing up moments and relatively short sermons: to help avoid mass back pain?

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Peaceful and fairly quiet. Not awkwardly hushed, but not gossipy either.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning and welcome to Southwark Cathedral this morning."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
No books, just a service sheet and booklet containing the relevant bits from Common Worship Service and Prayers. This was a massive relief to me, because I hate fussing with finding page such-and-such in the red book, and then suddenly realising we're supposed to be on page such-and-such of the blue book, and then trying to work out which book the hymns are in, etc. Having a single service sheet seems very sensible and much more considerate to non-Anglican visitors. They even included the music for the sung "alleluia" and "Christ is risen" moments.

What musical instruments were played?
Organ. Loudly!

Did anything distract you?
The seats were aligned so that visibility was quite poor, particularly as I was sat directly behind a lady with big hair and her rather wide husband. But this was nothing compared to the distraction of the organist's penchant for melodrama. At the first mighty crescendo, there were a few smiles exchanged between people sitting near me, so I'm thinking he/she may be locally infamous for such performances. It seemed especially ironic when, at one point, the prayer that followed spoke of how "in the joy of this Passover, earth and heaven resound with gladness, angels and archangels and powers of all creation sing forever the hymn of your glory." I was definitely hearing more hellfire and brimstone resounding than gladness and joy.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Formal, very traditional: candles, incense, men in gowns processing up and down the aisle for the reading from the Gospel. Good, solid ritual stuff.

Southwark Cathedral, London

Exactly how long was the sermon?
18 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – It was an interesting, fairly dense sermon, and I wish he'd been free to speak for longer, because it seemed a bit squeezed into the available space (like the building!). Biblically based, thought-provoking, and suitably challenging to our culture of ownership and affluence, he managed all that without a single cliché or trite sentiment. Thoroughly grounded in reality, but directing our eyes to God.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The church as the house of God, and everyone's place in it, versus luxury appartments for the few. The dean started with defiantly delivered stories of flourishing Anglican churches which had been given gloomy predictions of closure, and he moved on to emphasise that our dwelling place in the Father's house is given to us, not earned, not conditional, and not affected by this society's attempts to set limits and regulations on "who's in and who's out". The general election was mentioned in the context of how worrying it is that fear tactics are aplenty and environmental policies are absent, before he finished with the encouragement that there are many dwellings in God's house, indicating an acceptance of difference. This is the heaven on earth that church should be: so generous and open-hearted that everyone wants to be in it.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Cloud moment 1: sitting in the peaceful, light cathedral before the service started was lovely. A good time for a quiet moment, happily free of tourists' chatter and photography. Cloud moment 2: the choir singing "Gloria". Utterly wonderful. Cloud moment 3: the extra prayers, reflections and comments written in the service book was way above and beyond the usual. I wanted to steal one away with me, but decided that probably wasn't quite the thing to do.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Nasty hard seat. Stinky headache-inducing incense. Very dramatic organ crashes – more Hammer House than God's house.

If intercessory prayers were said, what issues were raised?
We prayed for... the worldwide church and the new Pope... for the poor, oppressed, persecuted and alienated... for places where our relationship to creation has been broken... for people who feel broken or lost, courage to be strong... for those who died and those who mourn, thanksgiving for lives.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Nothing! Am I here? I thought to myself, or have I disappeared in a holy vapour after what was a thoroughly uplifting worship experience? I got a few tentative and very British smiles, but nobody approached me even though I did my best to look like I wanted a friend. I was on the verge of downing the last of my coffee, when one woman finally said hello and we got chatting. Guess what? She was American. The only other person who spoke to me was after I asked for directions to the courtyard. He was one of the clergy and he asked my name as he showed me down the corridor – and guess what? He's from Brazil. Inclusivechurch.net seriously needs to break the habits and genetic tendencies of our dreadful Britishness.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Weak. Fairtrade goodies were on sale, but we got ordinary biscuits, which was a bit disappointing. Drinks were served outside in a charming courtyard, the sun was shining, and it was all quite jolly – for everyone else (see previous item).

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 – I felt that I was visiting an active, spiritually healthy church and wanted to join in their midweek activities. But although I enjoyed the reverent atmosphere I'd find it a bit stifling on a regular basis.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. Although there wasn't much celebration or joy in the house. The lack of human contact afterwards made me feel decidedly unglad to be British.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
I'll be trying hard not to focus too much on the fact that nobody talked to me for an agonisingly long time. Because the beautiful aura of the place deserves remembering, and the stunning wood carving of a black Mary and Jesus will inspire me that I'm part of something global. Oops, that's two things!
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