Christ Church is one of the smallest Norman Gothic cathedrals, and its layout is strange to say the least. The chancel is longer than the nave. The pulpit points diagonally toward the former, and the lectern has been erected in the center aisle, thereby blocking the procession. On the other hand, the nave is a self-contained collegiate chapel. The daily offices are said facing west toward the precentor, while the eucharist is celebrated facing east toward the altar. The choir are seated in stalls at the rear of the cathedral the perfect place for the daily office and the worst for the eucharist directly in front of the screen between the nave and the ante-chapel. The organ sits atop the screen.
This is the only church in the world that serves both as a collegiate chapel and as a cathedral. As such, there is a great deal of fuss between the cathedral chapter and the college authorities. As to whether it is the bishop or the dean who holds ultimate authority, no one quite knows. But there it is, and it has stood there since 1546.
Christ Church sits on St Aldates in central Oxford, a very busy thoroughfare. It is surrounded primarily by other Oxford colleges and halls (of which there are 46). It has few direct neighbours because it backs up to Christ Church Meadow, but among them are Corpus Christi, Merton, Oriel, University, and Pembroke Colleges, Campion Hall, and the Faculty of Music.
Evensong was sung in the presence of the Very Revd Christopher Lewis, dean. The officiant was the Revd John Paton, precentor and cathedral chaplain. As this was the final service of the cathedral choir's term, there were a number of clergy in attendance, including two canons whose names were not provided. The choir was conducted by Stephen Darlington, cathedral organist.
What was the name of the service?Choral Evensong
How full was the building?
It was quite full given the number of parents in attendance. I would estimate 150 people. The cathedral is very small by English standards.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
There was a large crowd of people rushing in all at once. The sign outside said that the building would open to worshippers at 5.30, but either the backup of people or some function inside kept me waiting until 5.50 to enter. As I did, an usher handed me a leaflet.
Was your pew comfortable?
In the past I have been able to sit in the rear of the nave nearest the choir stalls. These stalls are among the most uncomfortable I have ever experienced. But as they are the closest seating to the choir, they were reserved for family members on this occasion, so I sought seating elsewhere. I finally settled in the chancel, directly next to the two canons. These stalls are the style with individual seats and cushions, which were quite comfortable. My only complaint would be the kneelers, which were simply tall blocks of wood with a cushion on top.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Most people were outside chatting until a mere ten minutes before the service. Once people moved inside and got shuffled about properly, things quieted down, but I wouldn't call it contemplative at any point.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
The precentor began with "Welcome to Christ Church." The service proper began with the confession.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
There seemed to be an endless pile of books in the stalls. In addition to the leaflet, which provided only the ordinary, the congregation used Common Praise (hymnal), the Book of Common Prayer (1662), and the Christ Church Anthem Book.
What musical instruments were played?
Pipe organ, an opus of Rieger Orgelbau, Vorarlberg, Austria, installed in 1978-1979. To call it ill-suited to its environment would be an understatement. Though excellent for playing Bach and Buxtehude, the only word I can use for its accompaniment of the Stanford Evening Service in A Major is dreadful! Despite its size, none of its stops fit the piece, or any other piece in the English repertoire. In particular, the vox humana stop made me cringe! The instrument should be promptly dismantled and sold to a German church.
Did anything distract you?
The gentleman next to me appeared to be ill. Perhaps the vox humana had gotten to him too. Or perhaps he had been sickened by how badly the Stanford Magnificat in A was mangled.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
By its very nature, non-participatory, although I would not call it particularly austere. Nor would I call it high church, though. The organist, Dr Darlington, had a peculiar way of introducing rubato into each verse of the psalm a practice I have not heard elsewhere. Also, I have discovered (perhaps generally in England) that the brand of high churchmanship to which I subscribe, a brand that came from Oxford actually, is almost totally lost on the modern congregation. When bowing at the Gloria Patri, for example, I was bowing alone. Even the clergy seemed to find it rather odd.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Setting the Stanford aside, the choir did a superb job with Kenneth Leighton's setting of the preces and responses. It is worth noting that those are always sung unaccompanied, so the organ cannot and did not ruin them.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The organ. Not only was the program itself quite English, but the postlude was the well-known Toccata from Widor's Fifth Symphony for Organ. It was practically a crime to butcher it as was done.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
There were many final good-byes taking place near the exit and in the main quad of the college. For several of the choristers and lay clerks, this was their last service at Christ Church. Otherwise the vergers went about their business to close up shop and the canons were stationed by the door to shake hands as people exited. A few stragglers were milling about taking photos.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
4 – I couldn't listen to English repertoire on that organ week after week.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
The beauty of the texts in the service spoke for themselves. There is nothing better than a good old 1662 service. It is definitely a matter of pride for an Anglican, and a treasure of Christianity.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The dreadful rendition of the Stanford Magnificat in A.