Photo: © Adam.J.W.C. and used under license St Paul's Cathedral stands on the site where the first public Christian services in Melbourne took place that was in 1835 or 1836, depending on which reference you consult. The original church that was built on the spot was consecrated in 1852 and used until 1885 when it was demolished to make way for the the present cathedral. A Neo-Gothic structure, it was designed by the 19th century English champion of Tractarian-inspired architecture, William Butterfield, who also designed numerous churches throughout England, Scotland and Australia. Many agree that his most famous work was All Saints, Margaret Street, London. The spires date from 1926 and are by a different architect, and were built of stone noticeably darker than that used elsewhere in the building. The interior is awash in colour and features some outstanding stained glass. The tile floor is also impressive.
The cathedral was the place where the first women deacons in Australia were ordained in 1986, paving the way for subsequent ordinations of women to the priesthood and the episcopate. They have an active outreach to refugees, which includes weekly conversation klatches in English followed by a shared meal. There is also a seniors' group that meets during the week (quoting from their website) "for friendship and fellowship ... [and] better pastoral connections with the ministry team." The cathedral is open every day to pilgrims and visitors, and a chaplain is usually on hand to meet visitors and offer spiritual support. Four services are offered on Sundays. There is a said eucharist service every day, and also evening prayer or evensong. On Saturdays there is a morning service in Mandarin. The Society of Bellringers contribute their talents before Sunday services, alternating between the morning and evening service, and can be heard practicing on Wednesday evenings. Photography is not permitted during services (but see below), and one must obtain a permit at other times for $5.00 in order to take photographs for personal use.
The cathedral stands on the traditional lands of the Kulin Nation, on the edge of Melbourne's central business district. It is not far from the banks of the River Yarra and directly across the road from the Flinders Street railway station, the first to be built in Australia and said to be the busiest railway station in all of Australia.
Presiding Minister: the Revd Canon Dr Ruth Redpath AO, canon pastor. Philip Nicholls, director of music, conducted the cathedral choir of boys and men accompanied by an unnamed assistant organist. Mr Nicholls also read the first lesson.
What was the name of the service?Choral Evensong
How full was the building?
It is hard to say how many people were actually attending the service. Perhaps 50 had picked up the service sheets and were actively paying attention to it, but there were a number of visitors who departed, or arrived, or in some cases both, throughout its duration.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
No welcome, but there was a large notice in the middle of the nave indicating where to pick up service sheets and the hymn sheet for evensong.
Was your pew comfortable?
A firm wooden pew, slightly lower than ideal for my comfort, but it was not too bad.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quite a few people were wandering about until close to the start of the service. When the organ started to play (about three minutes beforehand) most people settled down quietly into pews.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good evening and welcome to this service of Choral Evensong." Canon Redpath went on to explain the shape of the service, listed the music that would be sung, mentioned the specific parishes of the diocese for which we would be praying, and indicated that there would be a collection during the hymn.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The service followed the order of service for evensong from the Book of Common Prayer. Everything we needed was presented on a laminated card, with an additional sheet of words and tune for the hymn.
What musical instruments were played?
Organ. It was built by T C Lewis & Co. of Brixton, England, and installed in time to be played at the cathedral's consecration in 1891. Various modifications and maintenance works have been carried out since then, culminating in a major restoration completed in 1990 with the help of a National Trust appeal.
Did anything distract you?
Just before the service started, a young man in a brown t-shirt and back-to-front baseball cap stood at the front of the nave, with his back to the altar, adopting a pose with arms outstretched clearly intended to mimic a crucifixion, and encouraged his girlfriend to photograph him.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Traditional Anglican choral evensong. The music was Evening Service in E minor by Stanley Vann, with the anthem Ave Verum Corpus by William Byrd. The hymn was "Take Up Thy Cross" although I doubt the young man in the t-shirt appreciated it.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The calm ambience of the service was very soothing, particularly the anthem.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
A family stationed themselves in the aisle during the opening responses, aiming their mobile phones at the choir despite the fact that the cathedral clearly states that photography is not permitted during services. Several others also came and went after brief gawping.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Canon Redpath waited in the nave to greet worshippers as they left.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
No coffee. Wrong time of day.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
6 — I would be willing to consider it, but I am not sure how comfortable I could be if chance visitors are allowed to wander at will during every service. There is a difference between welcoming the lost who are genuinely interested, and allowing worship to be a spectator sport. I wondered if St Paul's has that balance right, but one cannot judge on a single visit.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
Regrettably I fear it will be the young man who mocked the crucifixion. I think it must be part of my Lenten discipline to pray for him: his need seems great.