Mystery Worshipper: Brother Juniper
Church: Christ Church
Location: Glen Ridge, New Jersey, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 19 March 2006, 8:00am
My immediate impression was that this church is an absolute jewel! With stone walls inside and out and exquisite stained glass windows, the Gothic building with Norman and Romanesque touches gave me a feeling of the Middle Ages. A quire of rich woods and a brass rood lead to an elevated sanctuary culminating in a freestanding stone altar. St Mary's chapel (in which today's service was held) has the same ambience, with a small, ornate altar backed by a reredos featuring the four evangelists garbed as bishops and Mary as a child being instructed at St Anne's knee. Stained glass from the Tiffany studios and a blue and white della Robbia Madonna complete this most elegant space.
My impression of the churches in this area is that all are focused on particular social needs. Christ Church seems centered on the needs of children and youth. A youth group and adult Bible class meet every week. There also is an outreach ministry to the homeless and other needy in the area.
Glen Ridge is located in northern New Jersey, near Bloomfield, and the church sits on a major thoroughfare straddling the town line between the two communities. Whereas Bloomfield features a mix of small, somewhat shabby businesses (many nail salons, cheap restaurants and dollar stores), Glen Ridge on the other hand seems quite a posh area, with beautiful, spacious homes.
The Rev. Edward Keller was celebrant and homilist. The parish was in an interregnum at the time of my visit. Father Keller was quite elderly, and I assumed he was retired and was assisting with the Sunday services.
What was the name of the service?Holy Eucharist, Rite I
How full was the building?
The early service is held in the chapel, which was practically full.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
I was the earliest arrival and was already seated before anyone else arrived, and so was not greeted. The service leaflet stated that one could fill out a newcomer's card if one wished. A supply of gold cross appliques were also available that we could affix to our clothing if we wished to be greeted. After the service, the priest and a lady who stood at his side greeted everyone personally.
Was your pew comfortable?
Yes, it had ample room. There were also hassock style kneeling pads.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quiet and intensely prayerful. It was lovely, verging on magical, for anyone who wished to pray quietly before the mass began. Not much use was made of artificial lighting either before or during the service, and the effect of early morning light coming through stained glass in the elegant stone chapel was the stuff of which good religious art is made.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
Father Keller said, "I usually welcome people, so welcome and good morning!"
What books did the congregation use during the service?
1979 Book of Common Prayer, service leaflet, a separate sheet with the readings for the day. The intercessions were printed in the leaflet, and went on seemingly forever, with many people mentioned by name – including local and national government officials.
What musical instruments were played?
There was no music at this service.
Did anything distract you?
There were constant instructions to turn to page so-and-so, please stand, please kneel, we will now continue on page 2 of the leaflet, etc. I found all this rather annoying, and hardly necessary since the service leaflet already contained references to page numbers and the like.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was a simple broad church service – no crossing oneself, no bells, no smells. The priest's proper Roman vestments (from a Roman Catholic supply house, I would guess) and the acolyte's cassock-alb almost seemed out of place. The service was according to Rite I but seemed slightly artificial – mostly the modern alternative prayers were used, with the thees and thous seeming an anachronism.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
3 – The sermon largely consisted of a recap of the scripture passages, interspersed with comments that had no focus and many loose associations. The chatty, folksy style was not one that appealed to me, and there was neither solid exegesis nor development of any spiritual theme.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
We are often asked to choose between the holy and the selfish. We tend to regard church buildings as holy places – indeed, Jesus called the temple a holy place when he threw the money changers out. But how many people are without churches in the wake of Hurricane Katrina? The church would carry on even if the building burnt down and we had to gather in a rented hall.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The setting was exquisite, and the peaceful, lovely surroundings were extremely calm and prayerful.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
What I found hellish, others may well find charming. The celebrant's folksy manner, like telling stories to children out on the back porch, reminded me of mildly humorous caricatures of the clergy that we sometimes see in films. It all seemed artificial and, in my opinion, spoiled the dignity of the service.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
A few people said hello, but most seemed to be in a hurry to get to somewhere else. Immediately following the service was an adult Bible class, but I did not attend.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was no coffee hour for this service.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 – Although I enjoyed the prayerful mood created by this beautiful worship space, and although the parish seems dedicated to community needs, I don't think I would fit in well where so much emphasis is placed on the young (not being one who especially likes children), in particular if that means contemporary music (which I like even less).
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
It did indeed. Everything combined to make Jesus of Nazareth seem quite near.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The morning light coming through the detailed stained glass, into a building that was blessedly free of glaring artificial lights.