Emmanuel Episcopal, Boston (Exterior)

Emmanuel Episcopal, Back Bay, Boston, Massachusetts, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Emmanuel Episcopal
Location: Back Bay, Boston, Massachusetts, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 31 July 2016, 10:00am

The building

The building style is Neo-Gothic and dates from 1861, the work of architect Alexander Rice Esty, who designed numerous churches, schools and public buildings. A beautiful building, it incorporates the work of the finest Gothic Revival craftsmen of the day. Today's service was held in the Lindsey Chapel, which features furnishings and stained glass designed by the renown Scottish architect Ninian Comper – it is Comper's only ecclesiastical work in the United States. The chapel is named in memory of Leslie Lindsey, a parishioner who was married at Emmanuel Church and perished along with her husband ten days later when the RMS Lusitania was torpedoed by the Germans in 1915 – an act influential in bringing the United States into the Great War.

The church

There are three notable things about the community: (1) They are overtly welcoming to the LGBT2 community, the female rector being married to a same sex partner; (2) There is a strong social outreach to the underclass of Boston; (3) They consider themselves an interfaith family and sponsor a rabbi in residence who preaches at services at least once monthly. Please see their website for a full description of their many ministries and outreaches.

The neighborhood

Back Bay, literally a bay before it was filled in and developed beginning in 1857, is one of the finest examples of 19th century urban design in the United States. In addition to rows of Victorian brownstone town houses, there are several architecturally significant public and private buildings and commercial institutions. The church is on Newbury Street, the upscale shopping street of Back Bay and just a block from Boston Public Garden and Boston Common.

The cast

The Revd Pamela L. Werntz, rector, presided and preached. She was assisted by the Revd Deacon Robert Greiner.

What was the name of the service?

Holy Eucharist.

How full was the building?

Fifty people, more or less. Those familiar with central Boston know that a high percentage of locals decamp for the summer, and unlike their big sister, Trinity Church, just three blocks away, Emmanuel is not a popular tourist destination.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

There was a bit of a gaggle around the entrance. All stopped their chat to say hello and two even "competed" to give me the order of service. A very comfortable fun interaction without being overly familiar.

Was your pew comfortable?

There were chairs. Because it was not full, I had the chair next to me on which to spread out book and order of service.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Quite a chatty, friendly bunch catching up with each other. I'd say ten to fifteen people arrived either last minute or late, which, given the number, was a lot. It could well be due to the notices being read out first. People get used to that sort of start.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Blessed be God: eternal Majesty, incarnate Word, abiding Spirit."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

All was contained in the printed order of service, although there were many cross-references to the Book of Common Prayer.

What musical instruments were played?

The chapel has its own quality organ, opus 957 of Casavant Frères Ltée of Saint-Hyacinthe, Quebec, Canada. It was badly damaged by fire in 1964 and repaired.

Did anything distract you?

After a week of very hot weather, there had been rain. As a result, the air both in and out of the chapel was warm and very humid. This was further exasperated by the closure of the outer doors to block out the loud street noise. Even members of the sanctuary party were using their order of service as a fan!

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

It was a rather straightforward service. There was a good size choir who weren't robed (lucky them on that steamy day), a crucifer, server, deacon and presider, all who wore white cassock-albs, plus green stoles for the deacon and presider. No bells or smells or chanting. Whilst the chapel has a beautiful reredos and, I think, an eastward altar (hard to be sure from my vantage point) they used a westward altar at the front of the quire to be closer to and face the congregation. At times, the presider stood in front of the altar and held the book herself as she read the prescribed text and gestured with her free hand. It looked lopsided. Either go behind, or have the server hold the book, or know your lines!

Exactly how long was the sermon?

18 minutes.

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

6 – The preacher adopted what could be called a "preaching voice," which is not my preferred way to hear a sermon, I much prefer a conversational or story-time delivery. The basic premise was good and well thought out, but it was rather long for an Anglican service (and the incredible humidity). It was a sermon that could have benefited from the old standby of homiletics advice: every sermon has at least three exit paths – always take the first!

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The readings were Hosea 11:1-11 (God's love for Israel) and Luke 12:13-21 (the parable of the Rich Fool). The rector remarked that for once the "hell and brimstone" tone of the Old Testament reading and the "God is Love" tone of the New Testament reading were reversed. At the core of her message was the elaboration of the danger of laying up treasures on earth rather than in heaven.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The lusty singing from the small congregation made me truly want to join in, and the anthem was rather good.

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

Oh, the heat and humidity would have given the devil a run for his money!

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

There was a coffee/drink table at the back, but it was more a top-up station – get your drink and then off you go! They seemed more up for that than for chatting with a visitor. But I did manage to find one friendly parishioner who stopped to explain a few things to me and hoped I'd get the chance to visit again "in season" when the main sanctuary is in use. "The music is stunning!" I was told.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Not really in the cards, so I didn't stop.

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

6 – Maybe 7. I am a frequent visitor to Boston and tend to try different places of worship. However, I will try to get back to this church in its main season to experience the congregation in full swing. At heart I'm a bells and smells kind of guy, though, so I would hope to witness a more formal celebration of the liturgy.

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

Quite simply – yes!

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

The greeting at the door. It was very atypical but very welcoming nonetheless!

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