Mystery Worshipper: Amanda B. Reckondwyth
Church: Encanto Community Church
Location: Phoenix, Arizona, USA
Date of visit: Wednesday, 1 March 2017, 7:00pm
The congregation first met in the clubhouse of a nearby golf course, and then in a neighborhood mansion that is now the parish house. The church building dates from 1950 and is in the Spanish Mission style. Inside is a bright room, painted white, with stained glass and a ribbed wood ceiling. A communion table stands on a platform, with choir seating to the left and musical instruments to the right.
They are an affirming congregation, welcoming people of all persuasions. They offer a variety of youth, adult and community ministries that are well documented on their website. I'll just mention their Back to School Drive, which provides school supplies, personal care products and undergarments for homeless teens; and their community vegetable garden, which grows a variety of fruits, vegetables and nuts that are given to the needy. Once each month, the congregation treat themselves to dinner at a local restaurant; they call it the Late Last Supper Club. There is one worship service each Sunday, with Sunday school and nursery care.
They are located on North 7th Avenue just south of Thomas Road near Encanto Park, popular with locals for its picnic areas, lagoon, swimming pool, nature trails, amusement park and other amenities. Also nearby is St Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center, which received unpleasant publicity several years ago when its administrator, a nun, approved an abortion for a mother of four who would have died had she carried her pregnancy to term. The Bishop of Phoenix revoked the hospital's Catholic status, forbade mass to be celebrated in its chapel, and excommunicated the administrator. The excommunication was subsequently lifted but the hospital is now operated by a secular health services corporation. St Joseph's Hospital is home to the Barrow Neurological Institute, the world's largest dedicated neurosurgical center.
The Revd Gloria Smith, pastor, in a black Geneva gown with purple stole. Garrett Behnam played organ and piano; I'll have more to say about his attire later. Jill Mahoney directed the choir.
What was the name of the service?Ash Wednesday Service.
How full was the building?
There was room for about 165. There were 25 people present, including clergy and choir. Mostly elderly.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
No one was stationed at the door. Just before the service started, a gentleman from the choir shook my hand and said, "Welcome." No one else paid me any attention, including the pastor.
Was your pew comfortable?
Standard padded pew. It was OK.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The choir were rehearsing. A group of old ladies visited among themselves. Mr Benham played a rather quiet prelude on the organ.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"The season of Lent calls us to journey along the edge, to anticipate that final trip to Jerusalem."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
There was a veritable library of books in the pews: The Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version; the New Century Hymnal; the Pilgrim Hymnal; and Sing! Prayers and Praise. There was also a service leaflet with an insert for the communion service.
What musical instruments were played?
Grand piano, in perfect tune, and electronic organ, nicely voiced and expertly played. There was also a digital keyboard that was not used.
Did anything distract you?
It may be sacrilegious to say so in this context, but Miss Amanda notices legs. The organist, Mr Benham, wore the tightest jeans I have ever seen, which looked like they had been spray-painted onto his very skinny legs. The choir were all informally dressed, but one rather portly gentleman in the choir wore a black shirt with flaming red athletic shorts that did no justice whatsoever to him or to his legs.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
A dignified and stately home-grown liturgy. The hymns were those old chestnuts - "Sweet Hour of Prayer" and "Abide With Me", which were a pleasure to sing, especially to Mr Benham's able accompaniment (his legs may have been skinny but they worked the organ pedals quite well). There were prayers, scripture readings, the imposition of ashes, and an abbreviated communion service. Interestingly, the words of institution were not spoken at communion; rather, we were told that Jesus shared the bread and wine with his friends. Communion was ministered pew style, using thin wafers and wee cuppies of grape juice.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
10 – I'm going to flip all the cards because the Revd Gloria Smith delivered a powerful message in a very brief time.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
During Lent we lay ourselves open to the divine and close the door to awareness of who we think we are. We come back down to earth. The ashes we receive were once trees, full of life; now they are lifeless. But mixed with the oil and water of baptism, they will bear the fruit of peace, justice and generosity. Ashes are worth wearing.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The sermon was heavenly, as was Mr Benham's mastery of the organ.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The choir of eight put their all into it, but they sang with no concept of blending, breathing, phonation or dynamics, and only approximately in tune.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
After the final blessing, the pastor walked to the back of the church and everyone else sort of milled about not certain of what to do. The choir seemed unsure of whether they were expected to offer a final anthem (they werent, and they didnt). The organist played a rather somber recessional. I left my Mystery Worship calling card in the pew (there had been no collection) and slipped out the side door.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 – Were I to live in this neighborhood, I would probably seek out a church with a stronger music program and a eucharistic celebration that at least includes the words of institution. The preaching was good, though, and the liturgy was conducted with decorum.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
Those red shorts on the choir gentleman.