Wellington Cathedral – Mystery Worshipper Report

Wellington Cathedral’s quite nice as a building, and I get on well with the bell-ringers; but down on the shop floor it’s almost exactly the same as back in 2000: in fact it’s amazing how little it’s changed. The text that follows is from back then, with [just a few additions to reflect 2017.]

During my time in Wellington I went to the Cathedral a few times but no-one ever showed any interest in me, and eventually I walked out in the middle of a particularly lonely service. [I’ve certainly done this again.]

The format here is taken, of course, from Ship of Fools.

Place: Wellington, New Zealand

Mystery Worshipper: Thomas Cranmer

The church: Wellington Cathedral of St Paul

Denomination: Anglican

The building: 20th century concrete with annoying twiddly bits, a cross between a cinema and a wedding cake iced in pink. The overall structure is good but the twiddly bits (which seem to be Spanish Mission crossed with some vague notion of South Pacific) are distracting.

Inside there’s rather less trivia and it’s mainly a plain pleasant design with round Romanesque arches – though it could still do with some un-twiddling on the details .

Links with Coventry Cathedral in the detailed art work, particularly the tapestry and the ‘angel’ windows. It turns out John Hutton was a Kiwi, and he had a few studio spares left over, so they ended up in the Narthex here.

A nice bright space inside that ‘works’ well.

The neighbourhood: Thorndon, Wellington’s diplomatic and government area – rather posh by New Zealand standards, though a little tatty by anyone else’s. Some urban decay and renewal round the edges (where I live.)

The congregation is heavily biased towards professional over-60s, wearing suits and twin-sets and all with immaculate hair. Most of them commute in from other parishes, and even today most of them look like they emigrated from England about 60 years ago. [In 2017 they look like the same people as in 2000, but 17 years older – and there are fewer of them.]

The Cathedral also serves as the parish church, though you’d never know this if you live in the parish.

Today’s cast: The Dean, Rev Canon Michael Brown [Digby Wilkinson these days, and more recently David Rowe.]

What was the name of the service: Choral Eucharist (the main Sunday gig, which normally lasts an aching hour and three-quarters).

How full was the building: About 15% including various other clergy (all dressed up) and the choir (who are basically the main focus)

Did anyone welcome you personally: One of the welcoming team said ‘Good Morning’: the rest all had their backs to us since they were busily folding service-sheets. Apart from that, no-one said anything – though the Dean passed through pressing the flesh at one point.

Was your pew comfortable: Chair, actually: and it was very comfortable. There were, of course, empty seats either side so I could spread my books out.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere: The choir were singing well: the combination of light, architecture and music was delightful.

What were the exact opening words of the service: ‘Good morning and welcome to Choral Eucharist on Stir-up Sunday’. (It’s nice to see Stir-up Sunday still surviving somewhere.)

What books did the congregation use during the service: New Zealand Prayer Book, Hymns Ancient and Modern [Common Praise nowadays]. Text of the Psalm was available in the Prayer Book, though the choir unhelpfully sang from a different version.

What musical instruments were played: Organ – and it was making a jolly good noise. [Electronic Organ these days, because the ‘real’ one is damaged after the 2016 earthquake.]

Did anything distract you: Name plates on all the seats: the British High Commission seemed to have given quite a lot of them, and appeared to be out in force to sit on them. [Fewer of them these days, but the diversity of the congregation hasn’t changed much.]

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what: Not upper-lip, but definitely that stiff choir-led Anglican style. I can cope with a little of this but in the end I felt too distanced – though it was, after all, billed as Choral Eucharist so I should have known what to expect. The congregation were completely at sea when one of the hymn numbers was wrong, and are clearly unused to working things out for themselves!

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher: 6 – easy to listen to, and his material was well ordered and presented. I felt there was more to him than Choral Eucharist or this format gave scope for.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about: ‘Is it worth it?’, meaning is there any point to life. He answered it quite well, or as well as anyone can.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven: Up to a point (i.e. until I got bored) the singing, the organ music, and, surprisingly, the sense of different colour schemes marking different functions in the service. The choir were dressed in red and sat in their varnished pews with little lights, looking rather dark and serious – but beyond them the celebrants were bathed in light and dressed in white and pale green, echoing the greener colours of the sanctuary and looking rather as if they were in heaven already. [The choir – and particularly the choirmaster – seem to have got more ‘up themselves’ since 2000. Their singing is perfect, but it doesn’t make me feel I belong – or more specifically it doesn’t make me feel I belong <to> anything. On that basis I might transfer them to ‘the other place’ below.]

And which part was like being in… er… the other place: Trying to get anyone to make eye contact with me as I beamed at them after the service. [Or indeed during the peace. One of the staff rushed straight towards my direction, but as I positioned myself directly in her way she side-stepped quickly to hug her friend.] 

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost: The Dean shook my hand and we spoke briefly: I warmed to him personally, but apart from him absolutely no-one at all showed any interest despite me doing my best ‘I’m new here’ act. I even went back in two more times to give people another chance, but nothing came of it. [These days people do seem to make slightly more effort – but by then I’m usually feeling just too distanced from it, playing a commentary through my head rather than actually engaging with them.]

How would you describe the after-service coffee: No indication was given that there was any, and when I eventually located it in the Brian Davis Room the whole thing was like a day centre for the elderly. My nerve failed and I fled. [Back then it was in a side room so you had to be really keen – or desperate – to track it down. These days it’s served in the nave, which seems to make things a bit more friendly. But only a bit.]

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10=ecstatic, 0=terminal): 4. If I had to I could exist there, particularly since I’m only here for a year. I would enjoy the singing and the general show, and would no doubt ‘plug in’ at some point. I shall probably go back for some of the festivals if I’m in town. But on today’s showing my attendance wouldn’t amount to very much. [It’s 3 years this time, but in fact I’d only give it a 3.] 

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian: It did, strangely. [Not really. The word I’d use is suicidal, though I always worry I shouldn’t quite use that word. But honestly…] Being a Christian isn’t always brilliant, and we don’t always get it right, but the theme of ‘Is it worth it’ actually struck a chord. You can pick the Christian answer apart in many ways, but at the end of the day it has something going for it. And the good bits of the service really were something to be glad about.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days’ time: The colours, the singing, and how the Dean seemed to be fighting a lone battle to make contact between the sense of ‘performance’ and the world outside. [No change there, then.]

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