Mystery Worshipper: Amanda B. Reckondwyth
Church: Pohick Church
Location: Lorton, Virginia, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 30 August 2020, 9:00am
A rectangular brick colonial church sitting in a park-like churchyard. The building dates from 1767 and was erected on a site chosen by future president George Washington, with Washington himself supervising the construction. The church was abandoned in the early 19th century and fell into disrepair. But renewed interest in ‘General Washington’s church’ spurred a restoration effort interrupted by the Civil War, when soldiers used the building as a stable and field hospital, covering the interior with graffiti and pock-marking the exterior with bullet holes, some of which are visible to this day. Civil War photographer Mathew B. Brady documented the damage. By the end of the war the building was windowless, doorless, nearly roofless, blackened by smoke, and stripped of all its appointments. It was not until 1890 that a major restoration was undertaken. The fruits of that effort have resulted in an open and airy interior, painted white throughout, with box pews, an organ loft, and a tiny chancel. Behind the altar are murals of the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments. A raised canopied pulpit is off to the left, and the baptismal font, one of the few artifacts to survive from the original church, stands in the center of the congregation.
The parish was founded in 1689 and took its name from that of a nearby creek. Not only George Washington, but his father Augustine, served as vestrymen. The Revd Mason Locke Weems was a sometime preacher at Pohick between 1800 and 1817. Parson Weems is remembered as the author of several tales, probably apocryphal, about George Washington, including the legend of the cherry tree, which every American schoolchild can recite. Today the congregation sponsors all the usual activities, as noted on its website, and is well aware of the historic significance of the building and the parish. In-person services have resumed, but those wishing to attend must register beforehand and have their temperature taken as they enter. For the rest of us, their Sunday service is live-streamed. Today’s service was celebrated from the courtyard.
Lorton is a ‘census-designated place’ situated in northern Virginia just south of Alexandria. Until 2001 it was home to the Lorton Reformatory, an infamous prison where, in the early 20th century, women arrested for taking part in the suffragette movement were housed. Today Lorton is known primarily as the northern terminus of Amtrak’s Auto-Train to Florida, popular with Northerners wishing to vacation in Florida and to have use of their automobiles while there, but who don’t want to undergo the long drive along Interstate 95. Good rail service into Washington, DC makes Lorton an ideal suburban bedroom community. Lorton is trying hard to become a yuppie enclave, with new restaurants springing up in the vicinity of the railroad station and the old prison being converted into artists’ studios and a performing arts center. The popular Five Guys hamburger chain is headquartered here. Nearby are Fort Belvoir, a major U.S. Army installation; and Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home. The church is located along Route 1 at the southern edge of Fort Belvoir.
The rector and the assistant rector, who performed the role of deacon (reading the gospel, making the chalice, etc.); a crucifer; and a reader. The rector wore a green stole over a blue blouse, black skirt, and black open-toe shoes; the assistant rector a green stole over black shirt and slacks, black leather shoes – and, I am sure, black socks. The crucifer and lector were conservatively dressed in street clothes. The two priests wore liturgically correct green masks, although the crucifer’s was pink.
What was the name of the service?Holy Eucharist Rite II.
How full was the building?
The Diocese of Virginia has placed a limit of 50 participants on outdoor worship services; from what I could tell, there were about a dozen or so souls assembled in the courtyard. The Facebook counter stood at 54 at its highest point.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Miss Amanda lives three time zones away from the East, but managed to drag herself out of bed and boot up her PC in plenty of time for this very early morning service. She probably wouldn’t have been in the mood for a personal welcome if one had been offered.
Was your pew comfortable?
I always appreciate my desk chair. Attendees at the live service were advised to bring chairs or blankets – and masks!
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
I opened all the necessary software on my PC and arranged the windows for ease of access. Then I waited in silence for the live-stream to begin on Facebook. The live-stream revealed a communion table having been set up outside the parish house door.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
‘Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit’ after we had listened to some announcements and an organ prelude, and had listened to a soloist sing the entrance hymn: ‘All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name’ (one of my favorites).
What books did the congregation use during the service?
A service sheet in .PDF format was available for download.
What musical instruments were played?
Their website warns: ‘Singing has been proven a “super spreader” of COVID-19, so there will be no singing hymns aloud please, even from behind a mask. [The organist] will play organ music from inside, amplified outside.’ That’s what happened.
Did anything distract you?
The microphones picked up a continual din of traffic passing by.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
A straightforward Prayer Book Rite II eucharist, with Eucharistic Prayer B. At the exchange of peace, we were encouraged to flash the peace sign to each other. At communion we recited the Prayer of Spiritual Communion in lieu of receiving. Not even the rector communed – after the invitation, she placed the broken host on the paten, placed the paten on top of the chalice, and covered it with the chalice veil and burse.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
6 — I thought the rector got off to a good start, but she was reading her sermon from a prepared text, which to me is not the same as preaching. And the microphones continued picking up traffic noise throughout, which made it hard to concentrate on what she was saying. But worst of all, the live-stream froze for about a minute halfway through her sermon, which created quite a gap in understanding. I’m not sure I was able to pick up her train of thought again after things recovered. It seemed that she took a sudden detour – see below.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
This weekend normally marks the transition from a restful summer to a busy autumn. But these times are anything but normal: violence, upheaval, disrespect – all in the midst of a pandemic. It seems like people are trying to outdo one another in denying the humanity of others. We cry out to the Holy Spirit to rekindle the flames of our love. Social norms have devolved. But Jesus taught us that suffering is necessary for humanity to be transformed. Jesus was mistreated, but it’s all about forgiveness. To save the world, we must be willing to turn the world inside out. Be a light in the dark world. Yes, it’s a struggle. [And I’m afraid she lost me at this point, as she detoured off into a comparison of how we feel in certain situations vs how we should feel.] Instead of focusing on how to dishonor others, let’s focus on how to show honor, compassion, respect. Don’t let your love grow cold until the Spirit lights the fire of love again.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
I applaud them for offering holy communion in the courtyard in the circumstances under which we are forced to exist these days. I’m sure George Washington would have gotten into the spirit of things most comfortably, although what he would have thought of the modern language of Rite II is a matter for speculation.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The cacophony of traffic noise being picked up by the microphones was most distracting, most tiresome – and most hellish!
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
The altar party recessed out of the courtyard. The rector thanked us for attending and the congregation dispersed (with some post-service visiting, I noticed). After the organist’s postlude, the live-stream came to an end.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
None – I had already had breakfast.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 — Should I be in the area after all this is over (I have a sister who lives nearby and is overdue to be visited), I would probably stop in on a Sunday to see what their ‘normal’ live services are like. I respect the fact that they celebrated a Prayer Book eucharist with as much dignity as could be mustered under the circumstances. But as far as their live-feed services go during the pandemic, they really do have to rethink their microphone placement.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
Suppose they celebrated a eucharist – and no one received!