‘Mystery Worshipper’

Back in the late 1970s, there was a quirky Christian magazine called Ship of Fools. It didn’t last long in print form but resurfaced as a website on April Fools’ day 1998. One of its regular features is a report from a ‘Mystery Worshipper’. Like the ‘mystery shoppers’ who go into department stores and report back on the service they experience, the Mystery Worshipper attends a church and writes about what they find. The Mystery Worshipper records everything from the welcome they got on arrival, the style of worship, and the length and quality of the sermon, to the coffee served afterwards.

It’s quite difficult to be a Mystery Worshipper when you’re wearing a clerical collar and there’s a seat at the front that’s reserved for you, but occasionally I get the opportunity to attend a service as a regular punter. We were able to do this after Easter, when we were on holiday in Australia. Now to be fair, when I’m on holiday, I don’t always go to church. Shocking, I know, but sometimes it’s nice to luxuriate on a Sunday morning with coffee and pastries. On this occasion, however, we managed to stir ourselves in time to catch the train into Melbourne city centre and arrive for the main morning service at St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral.

St Paul’s is the mother church of the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne and the Province of Victoria, and is the seat of the Archbishop of Melbourne, who is Primate of the Anglican Church in Australia. (Fun fact: the word cathedral comes from the Latin cathedra which means a ‘seat’. The cathedral is where the bishop’s seat is located, from which the bishop teaches and presides over the diocese.) From its service sheet, we learn that St Paul’s is “home for worshippers from more than two dozen nations” and is situated on the traditional lands of the Aboriginal Kulin nation. On the sheet and verbally in the service, respect was paid to “the traditional owners of the land”.

The service we attended was 10:30 AM Choral Eucharist. As we were there on the Sunday after Easter, the cathedral choir was on holiday. The music, however, was ably lead by the Cathedral Consort – which I guess is the ‘B Team’, but very good they were. The music ranged from a 16th century anthem by Orlandus Lassus, and pieces from Benjamin Britten’s Missa Brevis (1959) to hymns by Charles Wesley and John Bell, a good catholic mix.

The service was led by the Precentor, the Revd Canon Heather Patacca. The preacher should have been the Dean, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, but, we were told, he was off sick. Instead, we were to hear one of the assistant clergy, whose regular responsibility was for the 9:00 AM ‘Family Friendly’ Eucharist. I was looking forward to the sermon because I wanted to see how a ‘family friendly’ priest would address the Choral Eucharist congregation, but I was disappointed that, instead of speaking her own words, she simply read the text of the Dean’s prepared sermon. The sermon ended dryly with, “the Dean would like to invite you to consider…” In their defence, the Dean had prepared a series of addresses on the Gospel of John for Lent, Holy Week and Easter, and this was presumably a follow-up to that, as the gospel reading was from John (20:19-31 – Jesus’ resurrection appearances to the disciples and then to Thomas). In my humble opinion, a sermon is not a text that can be read, but something that happens when the preacher and the congregation work together, and, as they say in certain circles, “God shows up”. I’m happy to elaborate on this if requested!

When we turned to the Lord’s Prayer, we were each invited to say it in our own language. As we were in Australia, most of the worshippers spoke English, but the service sheet gave the opening words to the prayer in French, Spanish, German, and, what I later learned were Malay, Maori, Chinese and Japanese. This was an interesting expression of the cathedral’s emphasis on the diversity of its congregation. It was also good to share the Peace with those around us.

The invitation to communion was inclusive (“all baptised Christians”) and came with a word to the wise: “Please keep your valuables with you”.

I’m afraid we didn’t stay for coffee – or ‘Morning Tea’ as the Australians call it – not because we didn’t feel welcome, but because the sun was shining, and we wanted to be outside. We enjoyed brunch at a riverside café instead.

One of the things that caught my attention at the cathedral was their use of ‘Tap and Go’ technology: their collection plates are fitted with a device that reads credit cards and automatically takes a donation of $20, which, they say, is the average weekly contribution made by their worshippers. As well as on the collection plates, ‘Tap and Go’ devices were located in various places around the cathedral. It’s a thought! (But if we install those in our churches, what amount should they be set to ask for?)

In the Ship of Fools Mystery Worshipper reports, there are a few questions which must always be answered:

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

For me, as so often, it was the music, particularly the Benjamin Britten and the anthem.

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

Nothing really, although, as I said, listening to someone reading a sermon they haven’t written, doesn’t do a lot for me.

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

Yes, it was good to feel at home so far from our actual home.

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

Probably the ‘Tap and Go’ technology.

Alan Jewell

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