"We should get there at least half an hour earlier to get a decent seat."
"Half an hour!"
"Bring a book."
"I don't know... reading a book in church?"
"Other people chat before the service, which I find infuriating. At least quietly reading a book doesn't disturb anybody else."
Convinced by my logic, H. stuffs a book into his coat pocket, while I slip the usual A4. brown, spiral notebook into my bag.
We are greeted at the entrance of the Cathedral by ladies and gentlemen who hand us an order of service with the usual, upstanding citizen smile of church wardens all over the country.
We notice a large proportion of seats in the nave being marked Reserved for Ticket Holders. "So much for the democracy of the Church," I say out loud. "Are we becoming as exclusive as King's College Chapel now?" I think that even at the Temple Church, which I regularly attended in London, and where every molecule of the congregation oozes a sense of almost aggressive hierarchy, seats were occupied on a first come, first served basis, whether you were a QC, a court clerk, or just me.
"I don't know if we're King's College Chapel," says an elderly gentleman with a Cathedral badge on his lapel, "but you can go beyond the organ screen, in the presbytery. It's great to sit there." He gives me a half smile to which I beam a sincere "thank you."
We take seats in the second row of the Mediaeval presbytery seats, wide and with comfortable rounded backs to support you.
I peruse the order of service. On the first page, I read:
Since the effectiveness of the service partly depends upon hearing from a distance, you are invited, when standing, to turn to face the direction from which the sound is coming.
I remember reading this in last year's order of service too and, then like now, stifling a giggle. I wonder if there is really anyone above the age of six months unable to work that out for him or herself, or why special authorisation is needed to turn your head towards the sound.
As the organ pours notes of Bach and Brahms into the air, the lights are switched off one by one, until we are plunged in a darkness disrupted only by the golden half-light of the outdoor illumination floating down through the arched windows and gently lingering on the stone pillars. I hold my breath in marvel. In the darkness the Cathedral seems to come into a life of its own, and find the voice of its history, of all the Benedictine monks that prayed here, eight centuries ago. During that – sadly brief – moment of silence, I think I hear them gossiping, discussing theology, begging forgiveness, reading the Rule of Saint Benedict, or uttering a prayer to the Almighty.
The clergy gather under the Advent wreath, the candles flames casting flickering shadows over their faces. After the blessing of the light, they process past us to the West end of the Cathedral. Last, walks the Bishop of Norwich, wearing a mitre. I find myself wondering if he knows the ancient reason for the pyramid shape of his headgear. The same reason why in early churches, the altar was always beneath a dome. The same reason why wizards' hats are traditionally conical. A reason of physics. Yet another piece of ancient wisdom that's been widely forgotten.
O come, O come, Emmanuel,
Redeem thy captive Israel (...)
My favourite Advent hymn. There is something arcanely wise and full of longing in its tune. I belt it out, hoping I'm not going off tune. I haven't sung in a very long time, and my vocal cords feel somewhat stiff and uncooperative.
"... the Lord Jesus Christ be with you."
"And also with you," is the response printed in the order of service. But I cannot speak those words. I have never been able to. They always sound so mundane to me. Instead, I mutter under my breath, "And with thy spirit."
I suddenly recall the religious fervour sometimes bordering on intolerance that I witnessed at my old Durham college. Where many viewed "thee"s, "thou"s, the King James Bible and especially incense with frowning suspicion. A college in whose Norman chapel the first Catholic mass since the Reformation took place in 1989, after much campaigning with the College Council. I was at that mass, one of the majority of Anglicans come to support the triumph of our Catholic fellow students.
The voices of the choir are carried over from beyond the organ screen. The rich voices of the men, the limpid, crystal-clear voices of the girls, and the vulnerable, moonbeam-like voices of the boys.
Advent Sunday is when I give myself permission to start indulging in a Christmas activities, such as listening to carols. Also when I start feeling the atmosphere of Christmas.
After the solemn blessing, the choir sing a Vesper Responsory. Its melody is full of mystery and hope. It spreads throughout the Cathedral and rises up to the fan vaulting.
As we come out into the cold, starry night, I realise that, unlike other years, I do not feel a sense of Christmas. Not yet. But as I look up at the starts shimmering like diamonds in the black-blue sky, I feel a sense of hope.
Please also read my piece about the Temple Church.