Christ Church, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA

Christ Church, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Christ Church
Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 5 February 2006, 9:00am

The building

The church was begun in 1727 and finished in 1744 and is an outstanding example of colonial Georgian architecture. Tall multi-paned windows provide a view of the surrounding area from within the church and let in copious light. There is an impressive wooden pulpit with a gracefully curved stairway, which was, however, not used during the service.

The church

Around the time of the American Revolution, many delegates to the Continental Congress attended this church. George and Martha Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Betsy Ross, Robert Morris and Francis Hopkinson were all members. When the Episcopal Church split off from the English church in 1789, the new body's National Convention was held in this church. Currently, the membership appears to be middle class and involved in many charitable works, both within Philadelphia and beyond. The church seems to promote a thoughtful and progressive approach to spirituality.

The neighborhood

The church is in the Old City district, not far from Independence Hall in downtown Philadelphia. As a result, it is on the tourist circuit and receives thousands of visitors during the year. The entire neighborhood is a mecca for tourists with an interest in American history, and there are a number of commercial enterprises at hand to take advantage of their presence.

The cast

The Rev. Carol Anthony was the celebrant, and the Rev. Timothy Safford, rector, preached. Also participating were John Binsfield, organist, Jen Miller, reader, and Joan Bedell, intercessor.

What was the name of the service?

Holy Eucharist and sermon

How full was the building?

Lots of empty seats – perhaps 40 people were present.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

As Mrs Ralegh and I entered, we lingered to gaze at the crypts along the walkway. A couple walked in behind us, and the woman, who later introduced herself as Mary Ann, commented, "If you don't fall asleep during the service, they bury you inside the church." She then took us in hand and guided us through the church, directing us to the pew "where Benjamin Franklin slept." An official greeter was also on hand to give us our leaflets.

Was your pew comfortable?

Wooden pew, white with black trim with a plaque stating that this was originally the Morris pew. Red cushions with brown leather kneelers. The pew itself was OK, but the kneelers were luxuriantly comfortable.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Quiet and reverential. The church was nearly empty about ten minutes before the service when we arrived, but as people entered they exchanged a wave with friends and then quietly made their way to their pews.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Blessed be God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The service pamphlet contained all the words of the service (Rite II from the 1979 Book of Common Prayer) and the text of the hymns, and the 1982 Hymnal was handy for those who wished to read the musical notation.

What musical instruments were played?

A beautiful pipe organ built by the Aeolian-Skinner company, originally constructed in 1906 but renovated a number of times.

Did anything distract you?

Mrs Ralegh, being in a devilish mood, pointed out to me that a number of the cast looked like notable personalities – Dan Ackroyd, Jay Leno, Gertrude Stein – which made it difficult for me to concentrate on what the look-alikes were saying for the rest of the service.

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

Stiff upper lip, although the congregants loosened up a bit during the sermon.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

22 minutes.

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

9 – Father Safford started off a bit woodenly, but seemed to relax as the sermon went along. He joked with the congregation at times and used some humorous but appropriate examples and illustrations of his theme.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

We all possess demons inside us, maybe not in the sense of real living demons spoken of in the Bible, but demons just the same. This keeps us from living out the Christian life as well as we might. Sometimes we are very aware of these demons, but more often we can see other people's demons better than our own. It is important that we learn to recognize and deal with these demons or we are doomed to sinful, unfulfilled lives. But we also have to learn to trust in Christ, and to allow him to carry some of our burdens for us, if only for a while.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

Three voices from the choir – four were listed in the service pamphlet – sang a couple of hymns alone that were undisputedly heavenly.

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

Instead of ascending the pulpit, Father Safford preached his sermon from the aisle and ended up standing right smack next to Mrs Ralegh and myself, who were sitting up front. It was a bit like being the kid in school whom the teacher intimidates by directing the lesson at him or her in particular. I was afraid we were going to have to prove we were paying attention.

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

As soon as the service was over, one of the vestrymen came over and introduced himself to us, and we had a very pleasant conversation. Then after he left us, Mary Ann came back over to speak to us some more and pointed out George Washington's pew, among others.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Immediately after the service, Father Safford was to lead a forum on the Rev. Absalom Jones, who was the first black Episcopal priest and apparently from this parish. Outside the room where the forum was to be held, paper cups and thermos bottles filled with coffee had been set out, but no cookies or cake. They probably didn't want to encourage people to eat during the forum.

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

10 – If I lived in Philadelphia, this is definitely where I would go to church. The people were friendly, the history is awe-inspiring, and the progressive attitudes and devotion to community service are right in line with my thinking.

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

Yes. This church exemplifies what I love about the Episcopal church.

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

Mary Anne's straightforward friendliness and her entertaining stories.

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