Christ Church, Elizabeth City, NC (Exterior)

Christ Church, Elizabeth City, North Carolina, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Christ Church
Location: Elizabeth City, North Carolina, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 4 March 2012, 10:30am

The building

Muscular Gothic Revival in brick, with a corner tower like a huge chess piece. It was built in 1856-1857, with major renovations carried out in 1994-1995. Directly across the street is the beautiful little Carpenter Gothic St Philip's Chapel, established by the parish around 1895 to serve as a chapel for African-American parishioners. It was not until the 1960s that the two congregations were merged. The chapel now serves as a senior citizen and youth center and for smaller services on special occasions. The churchyard is beautifully maintained, with fine grass and old-growth boxwoods; however, the soil has been seriously compromised by runoff from materials used to repair the church roof. Inside, I was very surprised that the cross was not veiled. The Lenten season was denoted by greenery in the vases instead of flowers. The paschal candle, unlighted, was discretely stowed in a quiet corner by the font. There were two enormous standing 19-light coronae lucis, complete with unlighted candles, one in the cantoris corner of the nave and one diagonally opposite in the rear.

The church

Their many social and spiritual programs are well documented on their website. Special mention goes to their emphasis on youth and the elderly. Morning prayer is read daily in St Philip's Chapel, and two eucharistic celebrations take place in the church each Sunday.

The neighborhood

Elizabeth City is situated in the northeast corner of North Carolina in the wetland region with the wonderful name of the Great Dismal Swamp. Founded in 1794, the city was an important mercantile and industrial center for most of the 19th century. It is now home to a United States Coast Guard station, the largest of its kind on the East Coast, and to one of the few airship factories in existence in the United States. Elizabeth City's downtown boasts several historic buildings, including Christ Church and St Philip's Chapel, the Virginia Dare Hotel (now a senior citizen residence), and the largest concentration of antebellum homes in North Carolina. Christ Church is Elizabeth City's only Episcopal parish.

The cast

The Revd John Horner, retired priest resident in the congregation, was officiant and preacher; the Revd Deacon Grace Wood was gospeller.

What was the name of the service?

The Holy Eucharist, Rite One.

How full was the building?

Very sparse. The Sunday bulletin noted that the sixth through eight graders were away at a special program. The weather was cold and raining.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Deacon Grace, fully vested, was in the narthex, greeting everyone with a smile and a handshake. Other parishioners were handing out bulletins. Ushers in eastern North Carolina do not typically usher anyone to a seat. These ushers were pleasantly devoid of the usual appearance of football toughs acting as bouncers. I felt truly welcome.

Was your pew comfortable?

The cushioned yellow pine pews, as old as the church, were actually very comfortable. The carpeted kneeling benches, also yellow pine as old as the church, were so heavy as to require the strength of two gorillas to shift them, and were of a slope to promote the old-style and now seldom-seen form of kneeling, with one's posterior supported by the edge of the pew seat.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

There was no talking before the service. The prelude was a piece listed in the bulletin as "Be Still My Soul" (to the tune of Sibelius' Finlandia, although no credit was given). The organist's rendition was truly dismal, with whiny string stops punctuated by powerful blasts of a cathedral-style reed. After that, the church bell was tolled funeral-style ten times.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Good morning. Our service is Rite 1 on page 323 of the Book of Common Prayer or in your bulletin."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The Prayer Book 1979 and Hymnal 1982 were in the book racks, but the entire service except for the hymns was printed in the bulletin.

What musical instruments were played?

Pipe organ, an opus of the Austin Organ Company of Hartford, Connecticut, and renovated by Colby Organ Builders of Johnson City, Tennessee, with digital stops added.

Did anything distract you?

There was a very verbal infant. I am not really distracted by this, as I consider it a healthy sign for the church, if not for the infant's relationship with its parents.

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

The style of worship was mostly old-fashioned highly formal low church typical of 70 years ago. There was, however, a cluster of sanctus bells rung only once, at the conclusion of the eucharistic prayer. I am of the no-cross-in-the-gospel-procession camp, and I found it rather confusing to see both the book and the cross in one small procession, as they do here.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

13 minutes.

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

7 – I found the majority of the Revd Mr Horner's logic rather hard to follow until he summed up his points with a rather embroidered version of 1 Corinthians 4:10 ("We are fools for Christ's sake").

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Mr Horner took as his text the gospel reading, Mark 8:31-38 (Jesus speaks plainly of how he will suffer and how those who would follow him must take up their cross). He spoke of the apparent conflict between the worldly idea of winning, of vanquishing one's enemy, as in an athletic competition, and the biblical exhortation to pray for one's enemies.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

I wouldn't go so far as to say "heaven", but it was reassuring to be among old-style churchmen and hear the old-style language of Rite 1, so close to the 1928 version that I grew up with. And it was good to see people of many colors as equals and friends.

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

Funeral tolling for the principal Sunday service is never acceptable to me. The space is acoustically dead and offers no support for congregational singing. The organist (in his defense Deacon Grace said this was his first Sunday) has keyboard proficiency but has not learned how to support congregational singing in this room, if that is even at all possible. A choir of seven amateurs should not attempt an anthem.

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

Visitors and newcomers were invited to make themselves known to the "newcomer greeter" (a listed participant in the service), who was stationed in the center aisle at the back of the church. She spotted me as a visitor and spoke to me before I could say a word. And Deacon Grace was in the narthex and remembered having spoken to me as I came in. They both encouraged me to return.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

None. It was noon and everyone seemed to be hastening to their dinners: "Oh Zion, Haste! Thy dinner rich and filling."

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

7 – The building completely suppresses any possibility of singing. He who can't pray twice by singing can hardly pray at all. If this were a good singing space, my number would rise to 9.

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

Neither yes nor no.

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

My nostalgia, not entirely positive any more, for those old Prayer Book words.

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