The current building was the first home of the parish. The first services were held in it in 1949. The interior, though, was extensively renovated in 1982, in a striking design. Pews in the front half of the church face the center; there are chairs in the back half of the nave. The altar is in the center of the nave, with communion rails on either side of the altar. parallel with the pews. The pulpit is behind the altar and also in the center of the nave. Organ and musicians are against the back wall. It's an unusual design, but one that seems (with planning) to work well.
This is a large parish with a host of social justice and Christian formation activities, described on a well-designed website. The music program is extensive, with three choirs and a brass ensemble. They are referred to locally as ‘the music church,’ according to their website. The parish sponsors Bach Society Houston, now in its fourth decade. It presents a number of professional performances of Bach's music each year. The parish has two Sunday morning celebrations of holy communion (or did, until the coronavirus hit), and a contemplative service of holy communion, featuring the music of the Taizé community, on Saturdays at 6.00pm. Lay-led morning prayer is prayed each weekday morning at 8.15am.
Houston is located in southeast Texas and is the fourth largest city in the US; its metropolitan area has a population of over seven million. It has a diverse economy, home to the Texas Medical Center, NASA's Johnson Space Center, and is a leader in the oil and natural gas industries. Cultural institutions abound, with professional symphony, theater, ballet, and opera companies, along with several notable museums. The parish is located downtown, adjacent to the campus of Rice University.
The pastor, deacon, assisting minister, lector, organist, and a choir of four. A pianist – not the same person as the organist – accompanied the choir's motet by Mendelssohn, but was not otherwise seen. I wondered if the motet had been taped at a different time.
What was the name of the service?Service of the Word.
How full was the building?
Not very – eleven at the most.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Was your pew comfortable?
My recliner was very comfortable.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
There are five bells in an outdoor tower, and these were rung for a couple of minutes before the prelude.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
'Blessed be the holy Trinity, one God, whose steadfast love is everlasting, whose faithfulness endures from generation to generation.'
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Everyone had a loose-leaf binder with the order of service in it. For those of us watching from home, the order of service was to the right of the video.
What musical instruments were played?
A two-manual tracker organ by the Fritz Noack company, its Opus 128, designed in the spirit of instruments known to Bach. Also, a baby grand piano. The church is blessed with a plethora of keyboard instruments, including a continuo organ and two-manual harpsichord (again in the style of one played by Bach), which were not used in this service.
Did anything distract you?
It took a while to figure out the layout in the front of the nave.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
A formal liturgy. There was a full menu of music, beautifully done. The primary keyboardist accompanied the chanted psalm at the piano, creatively, and sensitive to the text. The choir sang a Trisagion before the prayer of the day, chanted the psalm, sang a Hallelujah in three-part canon, and a motet by Mendelssohn. The organist was a splendid accompanist for the hymnody, providing short chorale-preludes, interludes, and varied harmonies for different verses. The distribution of duties amongst the various ministers was a bit different from what I am used to: the deacon served as crucifer, read the epistle, and introduced the Apostle's Creed by reading the names of all those in the parish celebrating baptismal anniversaries in the coming week. The assisting minister led the confession and forgiveness. The various petitions of the intercessions were shared by pastor, deacon, assisting minister, and one other individual.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 — The pastor is a superb public speaker; I didn't think, though that he had quite enough material to convincingly fill twenty minutes.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
He preached on the gospel for the day, Matthew 16:13-20 (Peter's confession of faith). ‘Location, location, location,’ he began. Every real estate agent knows how location affects the value of a home. The location of today's gospel is crucial – Caesarea Philippi is in the north of Israel, at the base of Mt Hermon (he noted that a group of parishioners were there a year or so ago). In Jesus' day, it was the administrative center for Phillip the tetrarch, a place for privileged politicians who collaborated with Rome. It was also ‘party central,’ a resort dedicated to the god Pan. In a place like Caesarea Philippi, all manner of hat-worthy slogans (a subtle dig at Trump?) vie for status as a human being's primary location. Faithful disciples respond, ‘You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.’
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The wonderful singing.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Occasional background noise. I couldn't tell if it was from a busy freeway outside the church, or from one of the microphones being used.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Well, under the circumstances, nothing.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
I will guess that there was none.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
10 — Houston has long been on a list of places to visit, and I would love to visit this parish and worship with them in person. I've watched a number of virtual church services over the past five months, and this was certainly the most professionally done.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The way the interior of their worship space is designed.