St. Paul's Cathedral -- Evensong review
After doing the Evensong at Westminster Abbey last week, I thought I'd give the one at St. Paul's a try as well. I was all ready for the entry scrum this time so I turned up at 4:30 only to find that the big queue was already going in. It's a lot more civilised in the City, it seems. Everyone queues up in an orderly line. At the other place it was a huge free-for all as everyone fought for their spot.
Once you're inside you'll find that there are still quite a few tourists walking around with their audio guides on. The priests seem to be pretty laid back about sightseeing for free, though, because you are able to walk around a large part of the Cathedral without restriction… all the way up to the dome in the centre. You can't actually walk up the stairs to the galleries though, they are totally closed to mass-goers, and you can't walk past the halfway point of the building either. But even so, that is still a fair-sized chunk of the place to see for free. When I went to Westminster Abbey last week they kept you cocooned in a little line up the side of the church, so you couldn't break out and see anything, but St. Paul's doesn't seem to mind so much.
They don't have pews at St. Paul's, just a load of wooden school seats arranged in a circle by the altar, and a load more stretching back in rows. I took my seat right at the front, directly under the centre of the dome. That gives you a fantastic view of the mosaics and golden finery festooned above the arches. The choir were doing their tune-up in the Quire, all dressed in black like Neo in the Matrix. It was a visiting choir from Trinity Church, Boston, and I swear to God that some of the kids were no more than 8. They were about 4-foot tall and were still sucking their thumbs, some of them. And I'm not even exaggerating… a big chunk of the choir was straight out of play school. They still sounded good though — I've got no complaints there.
I was all ready for the service at this point, sitting happily in my seat with a great view of the action. But I got a nice surprise now, because they called about 60 people up to go and sit in the Quire. For the people who don't know (and I counted myself as one of them, until last week), the Quire is the set of wooden stalls that face each other by the altar, decked out in lampshades and cushions, where the choir usually sits. But they had a load of spare seats too, so lucky old me got the chance to head through the big iron gate and into the Quire. That's when I got to see the second half of the Cathedral for free — with the best seat in the house. I was sitting in the stall reserved for “Cadington Major” (that was the name chiseled into the back of the stand).
Once everyone is settled in their seats the choir files back in, dressed in white this time, and takes their seats underneath the organ. Then they started singing their songs whilst the priests came in. Everyone is issued with a proper little prayer book and a music sheet, but it's a totally different service to the one at Westminster Abbey. For one, no one has to sing. There are no hymns. Only the choir sings. The congregation just sits there and shuts up whilst they bellow out their God songs. And there is no Holy communion either. So you don't have to chow down on the body of Christ. It's just a couple of readings, prayers, and songs from the choir. Fifty minutes later it's all over and you can have another little look around before dropping 50p in the offerings box.
So how does it compare to the service at Westminster Abbey? If I had to choose, then I would definitely go for the Abbey. Not that there's anything wrong with the St. Paul's service, of course — it's still worth doing if you've got an hour to spare. But I just prefer Westminster Abbey as a building. It's a lot more… intimate. St. Paul's is a very wide-open space, and totally white and bright inside. Whereas Westminster Abbey is a little darker and a lot more… cramped. Everything seems to be on top of you in Westminster Abbey, including the sounds coming out of the speakers, and I just think that a church service is better held in the dark.
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