Wellington Cathedral – Mystery Worshipper Report

Wellington Cathedral’s quite nice as a building, and I get on well with the bell-ringers and the clergy; but down on the shop floor it’s almost exactly the same distant experience as it was when I first encountered it in in 2000. The text that follows is from back then, with [just a few additions for 2021.]

During my time in Wellington I went to the Cathedral services 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’m slightly more engaged these days, but not a lot. The norm is a 1hr 45min eucharist centred round the choir performance – and I’m afraid it does nothing at all for me.]

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 good 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 2021 they look much like they did in 2000, but there are many fewer of them.]

The Cathedral also serves as the parish church, though I’ve never found anyone in the parish who thinks of it this way. 

Today’s cast: The Dean, Rev Canon Michael Brown [David Rowe these days, former Warden of Lee Abbey. I suspect he wonders about it all…]

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) [Less full these days]

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. [If you actually go there for the choral experience, you’ll love it. Personally I’m split: I love singing church choral music in a good choir, but I do as entertainment. It’s not what I want as my own Sunday worship, which is much more a good Protestant affair – a couple of hymns, a bible reading and some decent teaching are quite enough for me.]

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. Why was I not surprised.

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

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 navigating things 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. [I’d say 8 these days, and that applies to both David and Katie the Precentor and is despite David basically giving us a Lee Abbey talk most of the time. I like them both as thinking sensible people, though I’m not convinced any of us thinks they’re in the right jobs.]

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. The singing is obsessively performance-standard, 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.]

[Actually the best way to cope is probably to do this: at the start of the service (10:00) go off with the ringers for coffee, then (11:10) make my way back to the cathedral and join in the back end of the service.] 

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. [And this is still true. One of the grand ladies of the staff rushed straight towards my direction, but as I positioned myself directly in her way thinking ‘I’ve finally arrived’ 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. My questions about joining the choir were soldily rebutted…]

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. [And this time it’s 5 years, but I’d only give it a 2. No matter: my belonging to the cathedral, and indeed my service to it, is expressed through the bellringers. Which is a hefty commitment.] 

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 rather overuse 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.]