Church of the Holy Communion, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Church of the Holy Communion
Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 23 September 2018, 11:00am

The building

This parish dates back to 1870. This is their second home; they purchased it from a Reformed Episcopal Church congregation in 1903. The front exhibits an impressive sandstone exterior in a Romanesque Revival style. On the right side is a five-story tower that dominates the local area. The sides, though, are more simply made of brick. The interior features beautiful, non-representational stained glass windows on either side of the nave. The original altar is still against the east wall; a simple wire frame altar covered with a white cloth is in front of it.

The church

This is quite an active parish, especially if this Sunday's attendance is an indication of its size. There are a large number of social justice activities, noted on its website. A bulletin insert noted that on Reformation Sunday children in their Sunday school would be delivering toiletries to the homeless on Philadelphia's streets. A ‘Biblical Storytelling Workshop’ is scheduled for later in October. This note, from the service leaflet, perhaps gives an indication of how this congregation works: ‘Our Shared Blessing Friday Meal is now serving an average of 90 meals weekly. We began this program truly on a leap of faith without a budget line. We are currently seeking donations ...’ Holy Communion is celebrated twice each Sunday, and there is a service of Jazz Vespers on the third Sunday of each month.

The neighborhood

Holy Communion is located in the Rittenhouse Square neighborhood, one of Philadelphia's most affluent residential neighborhoods. A large number of 19th-century row houses, historic churches, fine restaurants, and the Curtis Institute of Music are in the immediate vicinity. The square itself hosts concerts, art exhibits, and other public events.

The cast

The pastor of the parish presided and preached. There was also a communion assistant, lector, organist, and baritone soloist. The communion assistant and lector assisted the pastor in distributing communion.

What was the name of the service?


How full was the building?

This is a large space and was about 25 per cent full.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

An usher handed us a hymnal/service book and a service leaflet.

Was your pew comfortable?


How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Quiet and reverent.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

The pastor greeted us with ‘Good morning. Welcome to the Church of the Holy Communion,’ and then read the first verse of the opening hymn (‘Gather us in’). She then asked us to prepare our hearts and minds for worship. The prelude (sung by a baritone soloist) followed.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The liturgy was in the service leaflet. Hymns were sung from Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006). The 1978 Lutheran Book of Worship was in the pews, but not used at this service.

What musical instruments were played?

A three-manual pipe organ, recently renovated.

Did anything distract you?

An aria from The Magic Flute, sung at the preparation of the gifts. Nicely sung, mind you, but it seemed a bit out of place.

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

A fairly standard Lutheran eucharist, though to this Midwesterner the ceremonial had some conservative touches. The communion assistant (in most respects, a liturgical deacon) was given quite a lot to do, including leading the penitential rite. Much of the liturgy was sung or chanted. The peace was exchanged, not in its usual place, but after the final hymn. As the altar was prepared, the bread and wine were simply transferred from a credence table, rather than being brought up in procession with the gifts of money. For communion, we knelt at the communion rail around the original altar, after the gifts were consecrated at the altar in the front of the sanctuary. Wafers, instead of real bread. And then, something I hadn't heard in decades: the Danish Amen sung after the final blessing. Whether all of this represents regional differences between the Midwest and East Coast, or are the remnants of a conservative tradition at Holy Communion, I can't say.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

15 minutes.

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

10 — The pastor was very enthusiastic speaker who interacted with her congregation and never lost her focus.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

She began by quoting from the gospel for the day (Mark 9:30-37 – Jesus tells the disciples that he will be betrayed, killed, and after three days will rise from the dead): ‘But they [the disciples] did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.’ What were they afraid of? If they hadn't been so afraid, what would they have asked him? At this point, she told the congregation she really wanted to know what they thought; members of the congregation comfortably entered into a dialogue with her. One congregant suggested they would want to know who was going to betray Jesus. The gospel simply says ‘human hands’ – not very specific. And what's this raising from the dead business? The pastor considered these, and then suggested that Jesus in this ninth chapter of Mark (and after eight chapters of healing and miracles) has opened up a chasm of uncertainty. One question the disciples surely had in their minds was: ‘What will happen to us?’ She then noted how in the second half of the reading (‘They had argued with one another who was the greatest’) the disciples had simply changed the subject. Jesus saw the disciples' childishness and simply flipped it, telling them that when one welcomes a child, they are welcoming him.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The pastor's sermon. I have seen over the years a number of preachers try to interact with a congregation, and it often falls flat. Not this time. The congregation were interested in her questions, and she guided the discussion quite ably.

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

A fairly heavy rain as we walked from hotel to church (close to a mile). I realize the parish has little control over Philadelphia's weather.

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

We remained seated to listen to the organ postlude. Since the peace is exchanged at Holy Communion after the blessing, just about everybody stopped to share the peace with us as they were leaving.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Coffee was served in the narthex, but we had opera tickets and needed to move on. But just as we walked out the door, we could hear the pastor saying, ‘Stop! I want to meet you!’ (We had walked past her without speaking to her, as she was involved in a conversation with a parishioner). She approached us, greeted us warmly, and invited us to return.

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

10 — Materfamilias and I make an annual trip to Philly to visit family and partake of the many musical offerings available in the city. We agreed that we are both looking forward to a return visit to Holy Communion. It's a very welcoming community, worshiping in a historic, beautiful space. Next time, we hope to hear their choir.

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


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

‘Stop! I want to meet you!’

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