Christ Episcopal, Belleville, New Jersey USA

Christ Episcopal, Belleville, New Jersey, USA


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Mystery Worshipper: Brother Juniper
Church: Christ Episcopal
Location: Belleville, New Jersey, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 12 March 2006, 10:00am

The building

The church's exterior is in a simple, modern style, very characteristic of many church buildings in the area. The interior is equally modern, and rather stark – windows are of transparent colours rather than stained glass, and the fittings for the altar (including a ghastly gold metal lectern) are straight from a 1960s church equipment catalogue. The spareness is relieved by banners at either side of the chancel. One is decorated with a rainbow and mentions this being "an inclusive church," while the other is in natural white and shows symbols of various community efforts. A section in the rear of the church is furnished as a play area for children. The tiny chapel of Our Lady of Walsingham was a pleasant surprise, decorated in tribute both to great women of the Judaeo-Christian tradition and to various ethnic groups, and contains classic chairs and a small altar, above which there is a lovely picture of its namesake.

The church

The notices and announcements made it plain that this is a parish with great involvement in community needs. Among the offerings are a soup kitchen, ministries to the homeless and to lower income families, twelve-step support groups, and Gay, Lesbian and Friends Community Outreach. I was very impressed, considering the church is relatively small, at the number of such efforts, and the notices showed that the church regards these as essential to the gospel calling. People whom I met at the coffee hour immediately asked if I was aware of the areas for service, which seemed to reflect great pride in their part in this. Among the announcements at the eucharist were an offer for assistance and information for those interested in the new domestic partnership arrangements in New Jersey.

The neighborhood

Washington Avenue is largely a commercial street, with businesses large and small, and what seems like an auto dealership and fast food restaraunt on every other corner. The surrounding streets consist of modest housing. Though Belleville is not large, Washington Avenue connects two of the largest cities in the state, running miles from Newark to Clifton.

The cast

Rev. Paul Walker, vicar; Deacon Randy L. Webster, minister of music and homilist. There also was a choir of two members, three acolytes, and three lectors. (The leaflet listed the names of the clergy, then "All Parishioners, Ministers.")

What was the name of the service?

Holy Eucharist

How full was the building?

The building was one-third full and, to my dismay, everyone was seated towards the back – my favoured spot to hide when I'm scibbling notes for Mystery Worshipper reports.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Someone at the door said "good morning" when providing the leaflet.

Was your pew comfortable?

Yes – it was a standard wooden pew with an attached kneeling bench. Pews were furnished with offering envelopes, visitor enquiry cards, and a "kid pack" to keep little ones entertained during the service.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Though the leaflet contained "a gentle reminder to use the narthex or guild room to 'talk about earthly things," it was rather a noisy atmosphere. Various people were greeting one another and chatting here and there.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Blessed be the God of our salvation, who bears our burdens and forgives our sins."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Leaflet containing the order of service and music; Hymnal 1982 (for the single hymn that was not printed); and a separate insert with the collects and lessons for the day. Everyone also was provided with a sheet containing prayers and a meditation for each day of the second week of Lent.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ – and what I believe was a sickly tambourine dying of its wounds, which sounded more or less at the end of each line in the spiritual sung at communion. The music was not a strong point. With almost all responses and hymns being 'congregational, the tiny choir was strained all the more, trying to support a group which did not have a highly developed sense of pitch or tempo.

Did anything distract you?

There were two major distractions, both coming from the rear of the church. One was the sound of children playing with toys. During the sermon, I heard a woman's breathy, somewhat ecstatic voice saying, "oooooh, yes..." which made me slightly reluctant to look back and see what what causing this.

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

This was an unusual service in that its style ranged from very contemporary Catholic to Protestant Americana. For example, the celebrant wore a modern chasuble, stole and biretta, and the music included both modern Roman Catholic adaptations of psalms and responses and very "down home" hymns. An African-American spiritual was sung at communion. The eucharistic prayer was very effective, because it included mention of the "God of our fathers and mothers," with reference to both Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rachel. Bells were rung at the consecration, which seemed a bit anachronistic.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

My watch had stopped! I would estimate about 12 minutes.

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

5 – Not knowing him personally, I cannot be certain – but I had a strong sense that a highly serious gentleman with rather a wry sense of humour was presenting the sermon in a manner verging on parody. It reminded me of a schoolteacher gently scolding primary age children. When he suggested we put the lessons for the week up on our fridges; said that he could count those who came to Friday Bible study on the fingers of one hand, and hoped that meant everyone else was home studying the Bible and prayer book; and used a "guilt trip and whinge" style about the lack of attendance at the day of reflection, I felt tempted to laugh. I did laugh at his deadpan question: "Did everyone turn down the chocolate cake on the day of the fast?"

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

God's grace is free, but it is not cheap. We may need to work on horizontal relationships more than the vertical. Somehow, the group of young men who formed a substantial percentage of the congregation did not look as if they spent their Friday nights poring over The Book of Common Prayer, and a few clearly had never missed a piece of cake in their lives.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

There was a pleasing, comfortable "come as you are" feeling to the service. This, combined with the clear evidence of the parish's dedication to the poor and alienated, was deeply impressive.

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

The "hellish" element was the other side of the heavenly coin. The whole-hearted dedication to the poor is lovely, but is also a painful reminder of how many people in the area are in great need. It is sad too that we have not reached a point where all churches are genuinely inclusive.

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

A friendly young man greeted me, told me a bit about the church, and accompanied me to the coffee hour. He then introduced me to the other parishioners, who were a friendly lot, and immediately told me of areas for involvement and an upcoming parish supper.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There was some very ordinary coffee and a selection of Entenmann's cakes. When I hesitated for a moment, someone kindly offered to prepare tea if that was my preference.

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

4 – Despite its being an impressive community, and that I may visit again, my own tastes in music and liturgy are higher up the candle.

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

Very much so. It is a pleasure to see a church where everyone seems not only to feel at home but to have concern for social involvement as a part of living the gospel.

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

How very well this group lives out the often-tired slogan: "The Episcopal Church welcomes you."

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