Christ Church Cathedral, Newcastle, Australia


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Christ Church Cathedral, Newcastle
Location: Australia
Date of visit: Sunday, 25 February 2024, 10:00am

The building

The cathedral is built on a hill in an eastern suburb of Newcastle known as the Hill, and can be seen for miles around. A church was first built on the site in 1817, and was one of the first buildings of the European settlement that became Newcastle. At that time, the area was being exploited for coal mining and timber, and the church provided a place of worship for the colonial staff, the military and the convicts who were working in the newly opened mines. Building work on the cathedral, which is in the Gothic revival style, started in 1883, and the cathedral was finally consecrated 100 years later, in 1983.

The church

Christ Church is well known for its musical tradition. It is an important concert venue, and has two choirs – one adult, and one for children – which contribute to the regular services and at special events. The cathedral’s Warrior Chapel contains significant memorials to those who died in World War I, and a memorial installed in 1982 commemorates Australians who died in World War II, and in the conflicts of Korea, Malaya and Vietnam.

The neighborhood

Christ Church is in the historic suburb of Newcastle known as The Hill. The surrounding streets are residential, with Victorian housing, and immediately to the north is the central business district of the city. The cathedral is at the top of a very high hill. The risers on the steps leading through the cathedral gardens are carved with the names of the convicts sent to work out their sentences in this penal colony, and their family members who died here – e.g. Albert Harnell, d. 6 Sept 1844, age 4 mths, infant son of Jesse and Emmaline Harnell.

The cast

The Dean was the celebrant and preacher. There was no service leaflet to identify the participants, but it seemed that an assisting priest (or deacon) was the Gospeller, and another priest (or deacon) led the intercessions. An amazing thurifer kept the thurible swinging throughout the service with intricate and varied movements, and also served as crucifer. The clergy vestments were magnificent - chasuble, dalmatic and tunicle in rich purple.
The two lay lectors were terrific; they obviously knew the texts they read and presented them with dignity and feeling. There were five people in the altar party, and 17 in the choir.

What was the name of the service?

Solemn Sung Eucharist.

How full was the building?

Practically empty. We comprised a party of three, and there were 26 other congregants. Many of them were elderly, and there was one baby.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

We received a greeting from a woman at the gift shop by the entrance and a warm greeting from a person passing out hymnals.

Was your pew comfortable?

Well, the pews. They were wooden, very narrow and hard, and if you used them to help you rise, they tipped because they were not securely attached to the floor. For more info about the seating, see below.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

The choir was rehearsing, people were getting organized, and I was looking at the crucifix over the pulpit.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

‘The service begins on the first page of your leaflet.’

What books did the congregation use during the service?

We were given a booklet called The Holy Eucharist During Lent, a leaflet with the readings appointed for the day, and a hymnal.

What musical instruments were played?

A splendid organ, and a piano used to sound the notes for the choir divisions before they sang the psalm.

Did anything distract you?

The corpus on the crucifix above the pulpit was striking. Jesus was strong, quite naked, and straining to get off the cross. I kept craning my neck to see if he had removed his left foot from the wood.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

Worship was High Church Anglo-Catholic, with much censing of participants, choir, congregation and altar. The thurifer was both reverent and professional and managed to employ a variety of hand movements to guide the thurible.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

10.5 minutes

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

8 — The Dean used no notes and spoke in front of the altar using a microphone. She was authoritative, clear, and pastoral. She made eye contact with the congregation and preached at a pace that both held our interest and gave us enough space to reflect on the content.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The Dean had received a treasured cross that had belonged to a deceased parishioner, whose funeral took place yesterday. Prisoners of war who were conscripted to build the Burma Railway in World War II had made the cross from scavenged shell casings. The cross was smuggled up and down the railway and used by the men as they gathered for secret services of holy communion. The cross was a symbol of hope in the face of death, just as it is a sign of hope in war-torn places such as Ukraine today, and just as Abraham found a sign of hope from God when he was 99. So for us, the cross of Christ is not a burden but a sign of hope in the love of God poured out for us.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The music. At the beginning of the service, the choir sang an introit from the back of the church, which was ethereal and beautiful. The basses anchored the sound while the other parts developed the themes. Sadly, the service leaflet did not identified the texts and composers of the music played and sung.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

Well, it's about those pews. They were narrow and they tipped, and they also made a loud flatulent noise when one’s bottom hit the wood. This sound didn't happen every time we sat, but often enough that we had to sit very carefully and bite our tongues to keep a solemn face.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

The Dean announced there would be tea ‘over there’, gesturing to the south aisle. We went and found a mother nursing a baby, but no tea. We asked a choir member, who pointed to a small tea urn and said that someone would be bringing cups. The clergy did not appear for tea, nor did any other parishioners.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

We never saw it. The three of us stood about 20 feet away for a while, but no one spoke to us.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

6 — In a future visit, we would like to hear more preaching by the Dean. We enjoyed the reverence of the thurifer and the beautiful liturgy, but we hope that someone would greet us.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

Christ Church Cathedral is highly focused on remembering those who died in WWI and WWII, and their survivors. Very recently, they installed a lawn, with lovely seating (metal poppies on wrought iron) and a stone cross in the grass to honor war widows. The walls of the church have displays of regimental decorations and campaign medals. One chapel has large paintings of suffering war victims being ministered to by Jesus. A metal sculpture of Cecil Thomas, a WWI soldier, lies atop his tomb in a side aisle. When today’s world spins forward and sometimes forgets to remember, it is a blessing to have a church hold up and give thanks for those who gave their lives that others might live.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

The kind invitation of the Dean offering flowers for folks to take home with them. There had been a wedding at the cathedral on Saturday, and as no flowers are placed on the altar in Lent, these lovely wedding flowers would have had no place to go other than the compost pile.

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