Monday, 6 January 2014


The Long Walk 
Until the processional hymn started one Sunday recently, I thought it was just a turn of phrase to describe your knees as knocking.  But mine quivered quite definitely as I stepped into the nave of the cathedral, eyes fixed on the prayer desk a long, long way in the distance.

Before Christmas, I was on placement for two months at St Columb's Catherdal here in Derry.  It was a Sunday-only placement, so basically it was in-parish training at leading various bits of services.

I chose St Columb's for several reasons.  Mainly, it's close to home and I already travel 3.5 hours on Sundays during term time.  Also, cathedrals tend to be on the formal side of worship so a good option for learning the 'rules', which later in other parish contexts I might be more inclined to bend.  

St Columb's Catherdal, the highest point in the city,
dedicated to the saint who founded Derry as a monastic site
in the fifth century
The first week, I went along to observe.  The Dean has done an amazing job in these days marked by dwindling congregations -- there were about three hundred regular parishioners there plus visitors.  That's up from when Dean Morton started.  We had a beautifully printed booklet-style order of service.  It was a big service - a Eucharistic celebration marking 400 years of relationship between The Honourable The Irish Society and the walled city it planted here in North-West Ireland.  The Bishop of London was there, the Right Reverend and Right Honorable Richard Chartres DD KVCO to give him his full title.  The civic functions of the Cathedral would be a recurring theme of my later reflections: Remembrance Sunday at the Diamond, the Festival of Nine Carols and Lessons, attended by mayors, councillors, a representative of the Queen even.  That was all quite strange to me, a new-ish Anglican who spent the intervening years in various free churches.

That first visit, I felt a bit like I was in a plane, and we passengers heard voices from the cockpit but we couldn't really see.  Partly because there's an enormous choir at the front between the congregation and the sanctuary where clergy sit, and partly due to beautiful carvings atop each pew end, unfortunately for someone of my little stature, just at eye level.  But our worshipful flight was smooth and at all times I felt myself securely in the hands of people well-trained to do what they do.  The choristers in particular sounded worthy of recording.  It just took some getting used to, joining my prayer to the voices of the 'pros' instead of saying and singing it all congregationally.

A week later, I robed and reported for duty.  And as I say, it was a long, long walk to the front.  That first morning, I reverenced the altar (do they even do that here? there aren't any candles on the altar!) and slipped into my seat at the south end of the altar.  Or as I still like to call it, right turn.  I knew there was a sequence of bowing to my seniors but I didn't even tackle that the first week.

As I said intercessions, I realized I was now the disembodied voice from the front.  It was disconcerting, I thought, not to see the congregation, not to make eye contact.  As always, what most terrifies me is the practical stuff - turning on and off the radio mic is a particular concern of mine; no one needs to hear me strain to sing the melody of the offertory hymn if I forget the off button!

Then, I assisted at communion.  It was the first time in a long time I'd used the first form of the service.  Rather than 'The blood of Christ keep you in eternal life' said to each communicant, it was the wordier (though very lovely) 'The blood of our Lord Jesus which was shed for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life; drink this in remembrance that Christ died for thee and be thankful'.  I had the honour of administering the Promise Chalice, and thankfully there were no major mental blocks (although a few people did get an abbreviated version of the words of administration).

Mistakes, I made a good few.  Once when taking the collection plate from the church wardens to give it to the Canon presiding at communion, I trod on my cassock on the step.  There were many kilos of coinage on the very large, solid silver plate and it almost turned ugly.  I learned that sometimes you have to point your toe and step very straight, like a tango move, to avoid a cassock disaster.  Funny the things you need to learn.

Much more importantly, as the weeks passed, I became increasingly aware that as big and important as the cathedral is, it's still a parish church.  The Parish of Templemore takes in a good swathe of the city centre and, crucially, the Fountain, that last Protestant enclave west of the Foyle.  It's where people get baptized, married, have funeral services.  As you enter, as well as carvings and plaques, there's a shopping trolley for donated food items to be distributed.  It's a living community of ordinary people from all walks of life.  It's not primarily a tourist attraction or a museum, or even guardian of the older traditions of the Church of Ireland.  It's a church community.  And a vibrant one at that.

Eight Sundays just wasn't enough, in the end.  I still don't know exactly when to stand/sit/kneel/walk/bow, but that doesn't worry me so much any more.  I know now that cathedral worship is still worship, and a cathedral is still a church.


  1. Enjoyed this and can identify with much of what you write, Chris, including the knee-knocking! Thanks.

    1. Suzanne, I think the day the nerves are gone completely and we just stride up there, that's the day we have to wonder if we've been at it too long! A clergywoman said to me once that the nerves are part of a healthy 'godfearingness'. But yes - I was shocked that I could be *that* nervous!

  2. Perhaps a discreet set of knee pads should be standard issue in future, by way of acoustic insulation?