Church of the Advent, Boston, MA (Exterior)

Church of the Advent, Boston, Massachusetts, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Church of the Advent
Location: Boston, Massachusetts, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 5 January 2014, 11:15am

The building

Completed in 1888, it is work of a parishioner, John Hubbard Sturgis. Proportionally it feels a bit strange, as the space is taller than it is long, and it is also rather narrow. The chancel is narrower still than the nave, making the full complement of people and equipment assembled in it rather cramped. But the attention to detail in the space is extraordinary. Two fixtures immediately catch one's attention: the magnificent high altar and reredos, and the great rood, which is suspended in front of the chancel in the crossing. Above the chancel on the north side sits the organ. Under the organ is the All Saints chapel, which is home to the original altar, and opposite it on the south side lies the Lady chapel, where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved. There are also galleries at the ends of both of the short transepts, from which the choir sings on occasion (though not this occasion). The magnificent baptistery is located in the west end on the south side of the nave. It is worth noting that there is absolutely no artificial amplification in the church, so everyone must project when speaking.

The church

To call this community high-church would be totally inadequate. Though I will detail more about the liturgy itself later, I half expected to turn around and see Benedict XVI sitting in the pew next to me. This is a parish that likes traditional liturgy done right, and it is also a very friendly place. The church's website has a thorough history of the parish, as well as historical photographs and architectural details.

The neighborhood

The church sits just a couple of blocks away from Boston Common in the Back Bay neighborhood of Boston, and it is surrounded be gorgeous row houses and historic buildings, making it a perfect setting. The church is nestled in a sea of side streets, making it quite charming, or at least I imagine it would be if not for having to climb over snow drifts so kindly deposited by the nor'easter earlier in the week.

The cast

The mass was celebrated by the rector, the Revd Allan B. Warren III, assisted by the Revd Samuel L. Wood, associate rector, acting as deacon. The subdeacon was not named. The Revd Deacon Daphne B. Noyes preached the sermon. Mark Dwyer, organist and choirmaster, conducted the choir and played much of the service music himself, although Ross Wood, associate organist and choirmaster, and an unnamed organ scholar played some of the music. There were a crucifer, two acolytes, a thurifer, a lay chalice bearer (who appeared to act at some sort of master of ceremonies also), and a verger. I found it odd that the chalice bearer, not the verger, facilitated the gospel procession, which is why I classify him as something of an MC. I should also point out that his overly pleated and lace-coated surplice clashed conspicuously with the more modest vestments of the others. It seemed totally out of place and inappropriate for the service.

What was the name of the service?

Solemn Mass

How full was the building?

It was not particularly full, perhaps 100 people at most. There were a surprising number of clergy in the congregation who, from what I could tell, were not associated with the parish in any official capacity.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

An usher greeted me at the west door and handed me a leaflet. I was one of very few to use this entrance.

Was your pew comfortable?

There was so much to love about this church, but sadly the pews were not one of them. They are exceedingly old and as uncomfortable as they look. The kneelers are worse still, which, as I later discovered, was more problematic than it would usually be.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

I was one of the first to arrive, and the choir were still rehearsing at the time. There was a fair bit of activity going on in the sanctuary in preparation for mass, and there was still a cloud of smoke in the air from the previous service. As people trickled in, they greeted one another quietly. But almost all conversation stopped when the prelude, Louis Vierne's Clair de Lune, op. 53, no. 5, began. There was a pause of approximately a minute between the end of the postlude and the beginning of the opening hymn.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

Following the procession, the choir began with the introit, the cantor intoning "Dum medium silentium tenerent omnia, et nox in suo cursu medium iter haberet" (While all the world was in profoundest quietness, and night was in the midst of her swift course) (Wisdom 8:14). At the conclusion of the introit, the priest spoke the opening acclamation:"Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The Hymnal 1982 and the Prayer Book 1979 were used, and the service leaflet contained the propers, hymn numbers, etc.

What musical instruments were played?

The magnificent Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ, opus 940 (1936), designed by G. Donald Harrison (a member of the congregation), was put through its paces through the course of the service. In its current form, the organ has three manuals, 57 stops, and 77 ranks.

Did anything distract you?

It comes as no surprise that, at this glorious time of year, everyone seemed to be sick – there was much coughing and sneezing from all directions. At one point, there was a loud crashing noise coming from the roof over the south transept, which I later discovered was falling ice and snow from the warming weather. And finally, there were the so-called manual acts of piety. It was a rare treat to see such participation from the congregation, but I am listing this as a distraction because the congregation may have taken them a bit too far. More than one person turned the customary nod at the name of Jesus into a full blown profound bow, which (especially during the gospel) was very distracting indeed since the name was in nearly every other sentence. Scale it back a bit, folks – we know you're all good Christians already.

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

I don't think it's possible to be more stiff-upper-lip than this. Even Pope Benedict would probably have preferred this to the Vatican. In the Anglican sense, this was a solemn high mass. The processions were led by a rather zealous thurifer, whose swings reached nearly 180-degrees, billowing incense in all directions. All three sacred ministers were dressed to the hilt in glorious vestments, and the altar frontal matched. And, as if all of that were not enough, I was taken aback (though absolutely thrilled) when the entire congregation genuflected in perfect synchronization at the incarnatus during the creed, which was sung. In fact, virtually everything that could be sung was sung, including the gospel reading and the Lord's Prayer. In short, this was Anglo-Catholicism at its finest.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

17 minutes.

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

6 – Deacon Noyes was rather difficult to listen to for such a long stretch of time. She kept repeating the theme for the sermon, which was linguistically awkward, and the whole thing was a little too rehearsed, and obviously much of it was read directly off the page.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The theme was "Don't speak while God is interrupting." In essence, God speaks to us in the middle of our lives, taking us where we are and interrupting the normal flow of things. We must learn to recognize his speaking to us in order not to miss his plan, and when we fail to do so, we end up "talking over" God, not allowing him to steer us in the right direction.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The attention to detail was extraordinary. And if you want an idea of how precise this parish is, visit the website and click on the Liturgical Customary link. That's right, they publish their entire customary online. This liturgy has not changed in a VERY long time, so they have had time to get it right. And the fact that everything was sung was truly extraordinary. The musical caliber of this parish is virtually unrivaled. The choir's rendition of Harold Darke's In the Bleak Midwinter was as fantastic as I have ever heard it, and I have sung it myself a few times.

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

This is a bit of an issue of personal taste and devotion, but immediately following the recessional hymn, the celebrant dove into the Angelus from the baptistery I will admit that it was done flawlessly, complete will bell ringing. However, not being an Anglican of particular Marian devotion, I'm not totally comfortable with the idea. Also, though not explicitly bad, I did find it unusual that the entire distribution of holy communion was accompanied by improvisation by one of the organists. No hymns were sung, and the anthem was not sung until after the end of distribution, as the clergy completed the ablutions at the altar.

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

As soon as the Angelus was concluded, the organ scholar dove into the postlude, for which virtually everyone stayed and remained quiet. I have never seen such behavior after a service! But it was certainly well worth it. She played Louis Vierne's Toccata in B-flat Minor, op. 53, no. 6, with great passion. After it was concluded, everyone filed out quickly and quietly while I spoke with the organist, who had been seated directly in front of me for the postlude.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Although I know that there was some sort of reception because the names of those assigned to furnish it were printed in the leaflet, I was not able to locate it, and as all but one of the doors had been locked by the time I went looking, I simply took my leave.

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

9 – I have always thought of moving to Boston one day, so it is a genuine possibility that I could make this my church home eventually. In the meantime, I don't think any visit to Boston will be complete without a stop at this gem of a church.

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

One hundred per cent! I was absolutely tickled pink!

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

The incense! I just love the smell of incense in the morning, particularly when thurifers know what they are doing.

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