Atonement, Chicago, Illinois

Atonement, Chicago, Illinois, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Atonement
Location: Chicago, Illinois, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 10 June 2007, 11:00am

The building

Henry Ives Cobb, designer of the Chicago Opera House and the University of Chicago as well as a consultant for the design of New York's Carnegie Hall, was the architect of this English Gothic style parish church dating from 1898. Inside, the nave is all stone and stained glass with a wood-beamed ceiling. A parish house is attached to south, and the parish owns an adjacent three-flat apartment building next door.

The church

They sponsor the Atonemen, a group of Anglican men dedicated to active spiritual formation, Christian hospitality and service, and Daughters of the King, as well as outreaches to the homeless, a jobs/careers ministry, and the usual church groups. Like so many older urban Protestant houses of worship, they have had to struggle to keep membership up but appear to be doing well for themselves.

The neighborhood

Chicago's Edgewater community is particularly diverse and has in recent years welcomed immigrant people from Africa, Russia, Poland and Bosnia, among others. The many hi-rise condominium towers along the lake front are favored by older retirees and single folk, while families prefer the also dense but lo-rise blocks to the west.

The cast

A big cast, featuring the Rt Revd James Montgomery, retired bishop of Chicago, as celebrant. Assisting were the Revd John David van Dooren, rector; the Revd William Johnson, associate rector emeritus; and the Revd Thomas G. Harris, deacon, organist and choirmaster. The Revd John Owens, pastoral assistant, preached.

What was the name of the service?

High Mass

How full was the building?

Comfortably full for the third service on a warm day – probably 250 people or so at what was to be a two hour service. Many of the ladies wore hats.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Yes. An usher handing out service sheets wished me a good morning.

Was your pew comfortable?

Fine old wood pews with kneelers, but no cushions.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

I arrived in plenty of time, and the pews were filling up, with folks praying, sitting quietly, or exchanging quiet greetings. Then the bells began to toll and peal, and the music started up: a brass choir with tympani, organ (loud), and (I'm not kidding) bagpipes and drums. Some of these overlapped in time, so the general cacophony (along with the whirr of electric fans) was impressive.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

Following a hymn and chanted introit, the bishop said: "Blessed be God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

1982 Hymnal, but the service sheet had everything we needed.

What musical instruments were played?

What had been described to me as the loudest organ in Christendom, augmented by the aforementioned brass quartet, tympani, bagpipes and drums. The organ case to the right of the sanctuary virtually explodes with pipes, including massive 32-foot dispasons, full-mounted mixtures and copper horizontal trumpets. The organist and choir are fortunate to be some distance away in the west choir loft.

Did anything distract you?

How distracting are bagpipes, I ask you? And every so often I heard an electronic chime over toward the wheelchair entrance, whereupon someone would dash over there to assist whoever was arriving. A few small children had a go at crying, but between the music and the electric fans they really had no chance to disrupt anything.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

Atonement is noted for its ultra-high Anglo-Catholic tradition, and this service was pretty high church, I'd say. Smells and bells, crossing and bobbing, not one but two thurifers, no fewer than three different sets of processional candles, two different monstrances, umbrellino shielding the Blessed Sacrament during the Corpus Christi procession – in short, the works! The gospel procession alone took eight people.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

9 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

5 – Father Owens got the job done, and his message was clear, concise and on-point for the feast day. But his style was textbook-dry. He could have been reading an essay prepared for a seminary class. I am rather used to anecdotal and personal homily styles.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The Judaeo-Christian tradition is one of faithfulness, from the story of Abraham and Isaac, through God's call to Moses, culminating in the New Testament. Although the Hebrew people broke faith with God, that faith was restored by the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The fullness of worship (there were at least 16 on the altar with clergy and acolytes). At the moment of consecration, the church bell tolled the noon hour just as the sanctuary bell was being jingled. Nice effect! After mass, we processed fully around the block along streets that at mid-day in June were teeming with people and traffic. This took us around the intersection of Hollywood and Sheridan where Lake Shore Drive ends, along a very busy beach replete with joggers and rollerbladers. What fun! And bagpipes are more enjoyable outdoors, of course.

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

The cacophony was glorious but was also a major distraction. And if you have a paid choir doing a Langlais mass setting, should they appear to be doing crossword puzzles during the sursum corda and Lord's Prayer?

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

No getting lost there on such a festive day! The procession, with its bishop and clergy and all the glitter and gold, was followed by a short benediction. We were then dismissed to the north yard to pose for the parish picture, in which visitors were heartily encouraged to include themselves. After that we retired to the parish hall, where a veritable feast had been set out for us. I was greeted by quite a few folk, parishoners and other visitors alike, and was introduced to the rector.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

A table groaning with sandwiches, hot dogs in chafing dishes, cakes, fruit cut into bite-sizes and arranged on trays. There were even floral arrangements for the buffet!

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

8 – I'd be pretty good with this place but would miss the music at my own parish.

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

Oh yeah. They seem to be all over the ideas of community and celebration and welcome.

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

The church bell tolling noon in conjunction with the sanctuary bell.

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