First English Evangelical Lutheran, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: First English Evangelical Lutheran
Location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 10 January 2021, 8:30am

The building

This is First Lutheran's second home, completed in 1888. It is remarkable for its ecclesiastical art – to mention only a few of the riches contained within, there is a Good Shepherd window in the north wall, donated to the parish in 1898. The window contains over 500 square feet of Tiffany stained glass. In the center is Jesus as Good Shepherd, accompanied by angels on either side, one holding a palm of victory and a crown of stars, the other the torch of faith and the book of knowledge. The free-standing altar is made of brass, wood, and marble. The design makes it possible for the congregation to see the church's original altar behind it. The Blessed Sacrament is reserved in a tabernacle installed in 1998. When the doors of the tabernacle are closed, the symbols of the four gospels are seen. When the doors are opened, one sees the Blessed Virgin Mary as Mother of Sorrows, mourning over her son's crucified body. This just begins to describe the artistic richness of the church's interior.

The church

The parish was founded in 1837, the first English-speaking Lutheran church west of the Allegheny Mountains. They sponsor a food pantry, and are involved with the Downtown Pittsburgh Ministerium, seven parishes and several other agencies actively involved in ministries to the urban poor and homeless. In addition to the usual Christian formation and social justice ministries, they are active in the campus ministries at Point Park University and Duquesne University. They co-sponsor a Sunday evening service of compline (sung by the Pittsburgh Compline Choir) at Heinz Memorial Chapel on the campus of the University of Pittsburgh (these services have been temporarily suspended due to a surge of coronavirus cases in Allegheny County). In normal times, they would celebrate holy communion twice each Sunday morning, and on each weekday (one of the few Lutheran churches in North America to have a daily mass). Now, they have one Sunday service at 8.30am that is live-streamed, and the daily services have been suspended. Parishioners can receive communion in one kind only in the courtyard, by driving up or walking, from 9.30am to 11.00am Sunday morning.

The neighborhood

Pittsburgh, in southwestern Pennsylvania, sits at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers, where they continue their flow westward as the Ohio River. For years, Pittsburgh was an important steel manufacturing center. But the mills are long gone, and today the area’s clean environmental footprint has earned Pittsburgh a listing as one of the most livable cities in the world. Pittsburgh was also home to the H.J. Heinz Company, manufacturers of ’57 varieties’ (according to its slogan) of condiments and spices – indeed, if one could maintain one’s sense of smell through all the steel mill exhaust, one could discern the aroma of tomato ketchup permanently hanging in the air. Heinz merged with Kraft Foods in 2015 and still maintains a presence in Pittsburgh, although its manufacturing plants are now spread throughout the world. Modern-day Pittsburgh is a major hub for the healthcare, education, and technology industries. First Lutheran is a downtown parish, in the midst of the central business district (aka the Golden Triangle), near the confluence of the three rivers.

The cast

The pastor led the Thanksgiving for Baptism that opened the service; read the first two readings; and led the psalm (spoken); then presided at the eucharist. The associate pastor read the gospel; preached; led the intercessions, offertory prayer and post-communion prayer; and gave the dismissal. There were also an organist and vocal soloist.

What was the name of the service?

The Baptism of Our Lord: Holy Communion.

How full was the building?

The four individuals (and I assume a cameraman) noted above were the only ones present. Due to a spike in coronavirus cases, in-person worship has been suspended.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

I accessed the service on YouTube, so no.

Was your pew comfortable?

My living room recliner was quite comfortable, thank you.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Well, with no congregation, pretty quiet.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

‘In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.’

What books did the congregation use during the service?

A service leaflet containing all of the texts and music needed. Not sure which Lutheran service book was in the pews; hymnody was from both the 1978 Lutheran Book of Worship and the 2006 Evangelical Lutheran Worship.

What musical instruments were played?

The organ, Opus 3709 of Casavant Frères, Saint-Hyacinthe, Quebec, Canada. It is fairly large (three manuals and forty-four ranks) and quite an impressive instrument.

Did anything distract you?

Materfamilias sewing upstairs.

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

First Lutheran has a strong Evangelical-Catholic tradition. The celebrant for the eucharist was vested in chasuble, the preacher in cope. Much of the service was chanted. Bells were rung at the elevations after the consecration of the bread and wine, and there was an explicit fraction (not always found in Lutheran services). The celebrant made the Sign of the Cross over the gifts at the epiclesis.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

9 minutes.

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

9 — Would have been a 10, had there been just an occasional moment to catch my breath.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The associate pastor started by saying, ‘It's been an overwhelming week!” (Just a few days earlier, there was a riot – some would say an insurrection – in our nation's Capitol.) We cannot ignore the growing divisions in our country, and it's hard to know what to do with it all. The people of Jesus' time could not hide from the political powers of their day, either. Jesus asked hard questions, which undermined Roman authority, and began to bring the Kingdom of God to the world. God's promises will be fulfilled, and the Kingdom is indeed coming in fullness when the time is right.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The beautiful interior of this space and the pastor's reverent presiding style.

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

Nothing is hellish at First Lutheran (I often have to hedge on this question), but it was a very clericalized service. I missed having some lay involvement, say, in the readings. I realize the need to minimize the number of participants, though.

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

Since I was at home, nothing.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

I doubt that there was one in Pittsburgh; at home, a glass of sparkling water sufficed.

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

10 — I would love to have the chance to worship in person in this historic space, with their strong liturgical tradition, whenever this wretched virus allows.

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


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

Bells during the eucharistic prayer, something I don't often encounter in Lutheran churches in my part of the world.

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