Bloor Street United, Toronto

Bloor Street United, Toronto, Canada


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Bloor Street United
Location: Toronto, Canada
Date of visit: Sunday, 6 May 2012, 10:30am

The building

A Gothic Revival church designed by architect William R. Gregg, noted for his several churches in the Toronto area and elsewhere, and completed in 1888. It features a stone exterior, a slate shingle roof, and two steeples topped with green spires. The front entrance was demolished when Bloor Street was widened in 1927; the main entrance is now from the side. In 1954, renovations were underway when a huge fire broke out, destroying most of the sanctuary. The rebuilt sanctuary is done in beech and plaster, giving the space a clean, fresh look. There are two sets of stained glass windows: the narthex windows, consisting of nine panels representing the church union movement in Canada; and the great south window, depicting the ecumenical movement in the world. Above the chancel are a large Celtic cross and a sculpture, High Anxiety, which looks like the skeleton of a boat suspended mid-air. To the side of the building is a small park, a rare patch of green space in downtown Toronto.

The church

Their several ministries are well documented on their website, including aid to orphans in Africa and help for newcomers to Toronto. They are in the midst of a major redevelopment project, including plans to overhaul the building space, host the new headquarters of the United Church of Canada, and potentially erect a condo tower.

The neighborhood

The church is located directly in between Spadina and St George subway stations, making it very easy to get to from just about anywhere in Toronto.

The cast

The Revd Martha ter Kuile, Minister of Worship, Pastoral Care and Faith Formation.

What was the name of the service?

Worship Service and Congregational Lunch – Redevelopment Kick-Off Meeting with B+H Architects

How full was the building?

The sanctuary can seat almost 1200 people (800 seats with unobstructed viewing), but there were only about 100 people in the congregation, mostly seated in the centre pews, with a smattering of people in the balcony. The congregation were decidedly approaching retirement age, with a handful of younger folks.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

A greeter welcomed me and handed me a service bulletin as I walked in. He also invited me to have a pre-service tea or coffee. As it says in the bulletin: "We prefer our churchgoers to be awake!"

Was your pew comfortable?

It was a standard wooden bench pew, but what I really appreciated was that there was a box of tissues in each pew. Whether youre tearing up from being emotionally moved during the service or simply suffering from seasonal allergies, theyve got you covered!

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Some people simply flipped through their bulletins waiting for the service to begin, and others caught up with friends about their week, but most of the chit-chat took place in the narthex.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"On a day when we might have slept in, we are here." I had to stifle a laugh; the sentiment is very true! Its the first line from a call to worship in the United Church lectionary.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Voices United, the hymn and worship book of the United Church of Canada.

What musical instruments were played?

Over the course of the service we heard piano, organ, guitar, recorder, tambourine and choir.

Did anything distract you?

I was honestly so excited about the redevelopment kick-off meeting that I could hardly sit still!

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

There was a mix of traditional choral/organ music and folkier styles. But everything was rendered with your typical churchy awkwardness.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

12 minutes.

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

3 – The Revd Martha ter Kuile used some rather flowery language and was sometimes vague. She made four main points, none of which were substantiated, nor did they tie together to produce a cohesive message.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Her text was Acts 8:26-40 (Philip's encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch). Her four points were: (1) let go of your plans and see where the Spirit takes you; (2) assume the one you encounter might know more than you do; (3) understand that everyones spiritual longing is personal; and (4) once the connection has been made, let it unfold in its own unique way.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The congregational meeting with the architects. Two principals from the firm made a presentation about the steps involved in the design process. They then asked the congregation to break into small groups to complete questionnaires about their vision of the church today and for the future. Hearing everyones suggestions impressed upon me how much this congregation cares about its members and the surrounding neighbourhood.

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

Hearing that the pastoral care coordinator position is going to be cut because of budget constraints. Sad day indeed.

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

The minister was waiting at the back of the sanctuary to shake hands with everyone on the way out. She invited me to join the congregation for their monthly after-service lunch. But while I stood in line for the buffet, no one tried to talk to me. After filling my plate, I stood around hoping that people would ask me to join their table, but no one did, so I asked a couple if I could join them. Once I started talking with people, they were really quite friendly and interesting, but they just needed that initial push.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

The lunch was broadly Asian and entirely vegetarian, with fried vermicelli noodles, spring rolls, salad, and sauted vegetables. The flavours were pretty bland, but it wasnt half-bad. There was also your typical church coffeehouse selection: loaf cake, fruit, nuts, and baklava.

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

5 – I really enjoyed the sense of community at this church, and with the redevelopment plans just getting underway, it would obviously be exciting to be part of this congregation. But the preaching and the worship left much to be desired.

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

The service itself didnt make me feel either way, but the congregational meeting afterwards did.

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

Hearing everyones suggestions for the new building. I will definitely be interested to see the final designs.

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